Japan’s third-string players are forcing their way into World Cup contention with their performances at the E-1 Football Championship, according to manager Vahid Halilhodzic.
“I think these players are serious candidates to play for the full-strength national team,” Halilhodzic said after Japan beat China 2-1 on Tuesday night for its second win in two games at the ongoing regional tournament, following an opening 1-0 victory over North Korea.
“If you think about the group, the mentality was exceptional and that was what gave us this result,” he said. “In the first game, there were times where we panicked or were too anxious. But I told them to be positive because the reason they are in the squad is because they are good players. I’m not asking them to do things that they can’t do.”
Halilhodzic has been forced to select an inexperienced squad for the four-team tournament — which also features South Korea — with his European-based players unavailable and top J. League talent such as Hiroshi Kiyotake, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Kenyu Sugimoto withdrawing through injury.
But the manager declared himself satisfied with the stand-ins’ performances after late goals from Yu Kobayashi and Gen Shoji secured the victory over China before the visitors scored an injury-time penalty, putting Japan in position to win the tournament with either a win or a draw in Saturday’s final game against South Korea.
“It was a great performance and a great result,” said Halilhodzic. “The quality was very good. Our combinations were very good, especially up front. We created a lot of chances even though we couldn’t finish them all off. The players did very well, although it was a shame that we gave away the penalty at the end.
“I know that not all the best players from the J. League are here because we are missing Yamaguchi, Kiyotake, Sugimoto, (Daigo) Nishi. But even so, the guys who are here did really well. Tonight I found some new players who can play for the full-strength team.”
Kobayashi, who was last week named J. League player of the year after leading Kawasaki Frontale to the title and topping the scoring charts with 23 goals, caught the eye with a dynamic performance and gave Japan the lead in the 84th minute with a finish from a tight angle.
“It’s a fact that I didn’t score lots of goals tonight, but in other areas — holding the ball up, heading and breaking through the defense — I think I did well,” said Kobayashi. “During the game, I was thinking that I needed a goal to cap it all off. I got one at the end so I think I gave a good account of myself.”
Shoji doubled Japan’s lead in the 88th minute with a huge shot from distance that Halilhodzic jokingly claimed was intended as a clearance. But the Kashima Antlers defender, who has been named captain for the tournament, was left aggrieved by a late lapse in concentration that allowed China to pull a goal back from the penalty spot after Shuto Yamamoto had felled Zhang Wenzhao in the box.
“When I took the shot, we were a goal ahead so I wasn’t worried if it went out for a goal kick,” said Shoji. “Kon-chan (Yasuyuki Konno) was in front of me when I hit it, and I could see him thinking ‘it’s going in, it’s going in.’ I was going to go to the bench to celebrate but I just got mobbed straight away.
“But then we conceded the penalty at the end, and as a defender I was more bothered by that than I was happy about my goal.”
Halilhodzic handed four players their international debuts against China — Yamamoto, Naomichi Ueda and Shoma Doi of Kashima and Genta Miura of Gamba Osaka — having also blooded the same amount of new faces in last Saturday’s 1-0 win over North Korea.
“We have done a lot of tactical work,” said Halilhodzic, who also saw midfielder Ryota Oshima leave the game on a stretcher midway through the first half. “I told them to forget about what they do with their clubs.
“I picked fast players in attack and told others to move in behind them to pick up the loose balls. I knew that China would have strong, physical players up front so I chose defenders who would be able to deal with that. I’m very satisfied with the way they played.”
China, which has not qualified for next year’s World Cup in Russia, has selected a young team for the tournament and started Tuesday’s match with six players under 25.
“We know that Japan has a high-quality team,” said China manager Marcello Lippi, a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006. “Japan has many players at a high level, technically very skilled. We could see that on the pitch today.
“When you talk about China, you have to think about the culture and the time that China has spent with football. It’s very different from Europe. Now I am having to build a team almost from scratch and we have about six or seven new players and we are going to work with them from now on.”