National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic singled out young debutants Kosuke Nakamura and Junya Ito for praise after Japan kicked off its E-1 Football Championship campaign with a fortunate 1-0 win over North Korea on Saturday.
Halilhodzic had goalkeeper Nakamura to thank for keeping Japan in the game at Ajinomoto Stadium after the 22-year-old made a string of important saves to keep out the lively North Koreans before Yosuke Ideguchi scored the winner in the 94th minute.
Halilhodzic fielded an inexperienced lineup with his European-based players unavailable and Asian club champions Urawa Reds involved in the Club World Cup, and 24-year-old winger Ito — who replaced Yojiro Takahagi in the 56th minute — was one of the few players to emerge with any real credit.
“Some players did well,” said Halilhodzic, who is hoping to use this week’s four-team tournament, which also features South Korea and China, to unearth new contenders for places in his squad for next summer’s World Cup.
“In particular the goalkeeper. He’s young, but he showed us that he can solve a lot of problems. That was a good discovery, and so was Ito. He can go past opponents when he has the ball. We don’t have many players who are good in one-on-one situations, so he was a big plus for us.”
Halilhodzic handed international debuts to four players, with FC Tokyo fullback Sei Muroya and Kawasaki Frontale attacker Hiroyuki Abe joining Kashiwa Reysol pair Nakamura and Ito.
The manager’s options for the tournament have been limited by injury pull-outs as well as unavailability, and his team’s inexperience showed as it struggled to create chances against North Korea’s solid defense.
“We didn’t have a player like (Hiroshi) Kiyotake, who can play a good pass in the final third of the pitch,” Halilhodzic said of the Cerezo Osaka playmaker, who withdrew from the squad with a concussion earlier in the week.
“So I decided to change the system, but we played too slowly and we played too many sideways passes and not enough passes forward. The strikers played too far away from the opposition goal. We needed to try to outsmart our opponents today and we weren’t able to do that.”
Japan next plays China, which drew 2-2 with South Korea earlier in the day, at the same stadium on Tuesday. Striker Kengo Kawamata believes the extra days’ practice will help deepen the players’ mutual understanding.
“Now we have to get down to training,” said Kawamata, who provided the cross that Yasuyuki Konno headed into Ideguchi’s path for the winning goal.
“After today and tomorrow we’ll be in better shape. Mentally as well. We’ve all come here from different teams, so now we need to speak to each other during the time we have together in the hotel and come together as one.”
Konno was by far the most experienced player in Saturday’s starting lineup with 90 caps to his name, with forward Mu Kanazaki the next in line with only 10 appearances.
Kashima Antlers defender Gen Shoji was named captain for the game despite having won only seven caps, but the 24-year-old was not about to shirk his responsibilities.
“This team has just come together for the first time, so if you have players saying, ‘this is my first time with the national team so I don’t feel I can speak up,’ then we’re not going to win,” said Shoji. “We have players on the team who are captains with their clubs, and that really helped me out.
“But we all feel we have a responsibility to lead the team. When I found out in the team meeting that I was going to be captain, it was more a feeling that I had no choice but to play my part than it was happiness.”
North Korea, which beat Japan 2-1 when the teams last met at the tournament in 2015, was left to count the cost of defeat after creating the best chances over the 90 minutes but failing to find a way past Nakamura.
“We studied Japan and we know how Japan is playing,” said North Korea’s German manager Jorn Andersen. “I know they have many good football players. We have to not give them space, we have to press them and close the spaces and then we win the ball.
“That was our tactics today. For a long time it looked very good, but to concede the goal in the last minute was very hard after a performance like that.”