Vahid Halilhodzic looks to bright side after Japan fails to capture E-1 Football Championship title

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic declared Japan’s performance at the E-1 Football Championship a success despite missing out on the title with a 4-1 defeat to South Korea on Saturday.

“I think getting two wins at this tournament is an excellent result, but it’s OK to have a different opinion,” Halilhodzic said after leading Japan to second place at the four-team tournament, having beaten North Korea and China in its first two games.

“The World Cup will be a different story. It won’t be the same team at the World Cup. I wanted to take a look at new candidates for the World Cup squad here. I used 21 or 22 players, and now I will analyze their performances and decide which of them might be able to go to the World Cup.”

Halilhodzic picked an experimental squad for the tournament in the absence of his unavailable European-based players and several injured national team regulars from the J. League.

The manager handed nine players their international debuts over the course of the tournament, but South Korea, which was also without its overseas players, gave Japan a harsh lesson with the title on the line.

Japan went into the game at Ajinomoto Stadium needing only a draw to lift the trophy for the second time, and got off to the perfect start when Yu Kobayashi scored from the penalty spot in the third minute.

But South Korea equalized through towering striker Kim Shin-wook 10 minutes later before Jung Woo-young scored a sublime free kick and Kim struck again to give the visitors a two-goal halftime lead. Substitute Yeom Ki-hun then completed the rout with a fourth in the 69th minute.

“South Korea were much better than us today,” said Halilhodzic. “I was amazed by their power and technique and control. They dominated in every way. There were 10 or 11 players that I couldn’t call up for this tournament, but even if I had them it would have been a really difficult game.

“We lost both on the ground and in the air, but the players fought until the end and I can’t complain about their attitude. South Korea controlled with tremendous power. We will have to analyze why we couldn’t cope with that power. I already know some of the answers and I don’t think they will please anyone.”

Japan struggled to deal with the aerial threat of 196-cm striker Kim and had no answer to South Korea’s pace and dynamism.

“We talked during the game about how we could fix the problems, but we weren’t able to do it,” said midfielder Yasuyuki Konno, who was by far Japan’s most experienced player at the tournament and won his 93rd cap against South Korea.

“We weren’t putting any pressure on them in midfield and we let their defense have the ball as much as they wanted. We were letting them play with freedom. But before we realized that we needed to put them under more pressure, they had already racked up their goals.”

The omens looked good for Japan when J. League player of the year Kobayashi beat goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo from the penalty spot after Junya Ito had been brought down in the second minute, but the goal was to prove a false dawn.

“It meant a lot to me that the manager played me and was counting on me, and I wanted to deliver in response, especially as it was the last game,” said Kobayashi, who also scored Japan’s opener in its 2-1 win over China. “It was a difficult game but I would have liked to been able to create more chances. We thought that if we could get a goal back then it might rattle them. We wanted that second goal.”

South Korea manager Shin Tae-yong was in charge of the team that lost 3-2 to Japan in the final of the 2016 Asian Under-23 Championship in Doha — which doubled as a qualifier for the Rio Olympics — despite having taken a two-goal lead.

“Losing to Japan in Doha worked well because it was a painful loss and I learned a lot from it.,” said Shin, whose team has been drawn to face Germany, Mexico and Sweden in the first round of next summer’s World Cup in Russia. “Today we were determined to win and there was a lot of pressure, but losing in the past helped us to be able to deal with it.

“Both Japan and South Korea will go to the World Cup and in that sense this tournament was very important for both teams. Regardless of who won the title, this was a great chance to learn about our strengths and weaknesses. Neither Japan nor Korea had our best squads but it was good for me to learn who can play when we don’t have our first-choice players.”