LIEGE, BELGIUM – Shoya Nakajima capped his national team debut with a last-minute equalizer as Japan salvaged a 1-1 friendly draw with Mali on Friday.
The 23-year-old striker, currently on loan with Portuguese club Portimonense, came on at the hour-mark. He displayed a knack for finding space among the Mali defenders but failed to connect with a number of his passes and shots.
But as the seconds ticked down, Nakajima was once more unmarked in the penalty box.
He latched onto a perfectly weighted cross from Kento Misao and drilled home.
“I kept pushing for a goal, so that we could come from behind, and finally I got one,” Nakajima said. “I’m happy to get the goal, but I wanted to win and so this is extremely frustrating. I want to improve my play, so starting tomorrow I will practice diligently.”
Mali broke the deadlock on Abdoulay Diaby’s 44th-minute penalty kick in a half that saw Japan own the bulk of possession and create far more chances.
“It was a tough result,” Japan head coach Vahid Halilhodzic said. “We learned a few things, not all of them positive. We still have some games to play (ahead of the World Cup).”
Against Mali, a World Cup warm-up opponent selected as practice for the kind of challenge Japan will face against fellow West African side Senegal in Russia in four months’ time, Japan was under the gun from the kickoff.
Without longtime national team stalwart Maya Yoshida in central defense, Japan was troubled at the outset by the pace and slick, one-touch passes by the Mali attackers.
But the Mali defense also showed its limits as a few long balls into its half created chaos and allowed Japan to regroup. Halilhodzic’s side slowed the pace and a few good balls into the box to forward Yuya Osako forced some good saves from goakeeper Djigui Diarra.
But for most of the half, Japan seemed content to control the ball with safe passes.
Tomoya Ugajin, making his senior debut on his 30th birthday, committed a foul in the penalty area, missing the ball and striking an opponent in the thigh with his boot, and Diaby, who plays in Belgium for Club Brugge, drilled the ball inside Nakamura’s top left corner.
Except for the initial scares and Ugajin’s missteps, Japan’s defenders maintained their shape, and showed composure in shutting down Mali’s incursions.
The introduction of core star Keisuke Honda in the 71st minute added some energy to Japan’s bid for an equalizer, but its accuracy in the final third of the pitch remained poor.
Overall, veteran left back Yuto Nagatomo, now playing with Turkish giant Galatasaray, put in a solid performance as did captain Makoto Hasebe in midfield. Gotoku Sakai, who came on for Ugajin in the second half, also proved to be a handful up the right flank.
Japan will play Ukraine at the same venue in Belgium on Tuesday.
“We have a lot to work on here,” Hasebe said. “Individual skills need polishing as does our team play. What you saw in today’s game is where we are right now. We have another game against Ukraine and we want to correct a few things before that and give them a good game.”
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