YOKOHAMA – New national team manager Akira Nishino was handed a stark reminder of the task he faces at next month’s World Cup after Japan lost 2-0 to Ghana on Wednesday in its final warmup match on home soil.
Nishino was taking charge of the team for the first time since replacing fired predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic last month, with the new manager set to name his 23-man squad for the tournament on Thursday.
But Ghana exposed Japan’s weaknesses at a rain-soaked Nissan Stadium, taking the lead through a Thomas Partey free kick in the ninth minute before adding a second from the penalty spot six minutes into the second half after Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima had upended Ghana midfielder Emmanuel Boateng.
“Some things worked and some things didn’t, and the things that didn’t led to this result,” said Nishino. “I was able to try out a lot of things and I was able to look at a lot of players, but we were looking to win the game and the fact that we didn’t is disappointing. As time went on things picked up, but we didn’t start the game well. We weren’t all on the same page.”
Japan still has two friendlies to play in Europe against Switzerland and Paraguay before it begins its World Cup campaign against Colombia on June 19. Japan will also face Senegal and Poland in Group H.
Nishino must first decide on his 23-man squad to take to the tournament, and will announce which three of the 26 players selected for the Ghana game will not make the cut on Thursday afternoon.
“Of course, with regards to the result tonight, whichever way you look at it there are things we need to work on,” said forward Keisuke Honda. “This situation that we are in didn’t begin just now. But we are looking at it like we are starting from zero and we are only looking forward.
“Not one of the players is pessimistic. Of course we feel a sense of urgency but we are thinking positively and the players are all together. We just have to prepare as well as we can.”
Nishino took the opportunity to try out a three-man defense, with Makoto Hasebe — usually a midfielder — lining up at the back alongside Tomoaki Makino and Maya Yoshida.
“Ghana are a powerful team, but we managed to handle them reasonably well given how little time we’ve had to work on it,” said Makino. “Myself and Yoshida and Hasebe were communicating throughout. But there are a lot of small things to fix, especially when we’re playing against stronger teams who will force us to defend.”
The home side made a bright start but found itself trailing in the ninth minute when Makino gave away a foul on the edge of the box and Partey stepped up to place a low free kick through the wall and beyond Kawashima.
“I can’t give away fouls in that area at the World Cup,” said Makino. “I have to be smarter than that.”
Honda came close to equalizing twice in the space of a minute midway through the first half. First the two-time World Cup veteran smashed a free kick that goalkeeper Richard Ofori tipped around the post, before he was again denied by Ofori from the resulting corner.
Nishino brought on a raft of substitutes at halftime, and Yoshinori Muto almost made an immediate impact when he flashed a header just wide of the post in the 46th minute. Fellow replacement Shinji Kagawa then had a shot saved by Ofori minutes later.
“I came on when the team was 1-0 down and my first thought was to score,” said Kagawa, who returned from a three-month injury layoff with club team Borussia Dortmund earlier this month. “We had chances after I came on but I couldn’t take them. There are lessons to be learned from this game.”
But Japan’s hopes of getting back into the match suffered a serious blow when Kawashima came clattering into Boateng as the midfielder chased a long ball forward, and referee Christopher Beath pointed to the penalty spot. Boateng promptly got up and dispatched the spot kick himself.
“That goal was the result of lots of small mistakes,” said Hasebe. “If you do that at the World Cup, you get punished even more.”
Gaku Shibasaki and Ryota Oshima both went close with long-range shots as Japan desperately tried to pull a goal back, but Muto bent the home team’s last chance past the post in injury time to leave Japan goalless.
“Tactically the Japanese team are not a bad side when they have the ball,” said Ghana manager James Appiah. “They move very well up front but I think there were some lapses with their defending.
“I think it’s a very good exercise for the Japanese in the sense that I don’t believe in winning games before the World Cup. It’s important that you lose sometimes because you learn from your mistakes. You do it now and then the coach can learn from it and perform very well at the World Cup.”