Soccer

Japan heads into World Cup on high note after win over Paraguay

Kyodo

Takashi Inui sent Japan into the World Cup on a bright note on Tuesday, scoring twice in a 4-2 win over Paraguay in the team’s final warmup match.

Inui made up for an ugly first-half miss to score a brace after the Samurai Blue came into the second half with renewed purpose.

Japan’s first win in head coach Akira Nishino’s third game in charge provided some relief after a string of poor results. Set to open its World Cup campaign in Russia in one week’s time, Japan, ranked 61st in the world, was coming off 2-0 losses to Ghana and Switzerland.

“We held our shape in defense and contained them, and that was a concern for us, but you need balance as well,” Nishino said. “You need to break down your opponents and we finally did that in the second half.

“Inui has a talent for dribbling in the box and I want more of that from him. We saw that with his second-half goals.”

Trailing 1-0 to Oscar Romero’s 32nd-minute strike, Inui wasted a brilliant opportunity to equalize one minute later. Unmarked in the penalty area, he side-footed the ball and sent it soaring over the target — a shot indicative of Japan’s first-half efforts.

An own goal off a Gaku Shibasaki free kick and an exquisite late strike from Shinji Kagawa allowed Japan to head into Russia with a win.

Inui, who plays his club football in Spain, equalized in the 51st-minute. He dribbled parallel to the goal before unleashing a right-footed rocket from the edge of the penalty area. His goal opened the floodgates against 32nd-ranked Paraguay, which did not qualify for Russia.

“I missed my first chance, so getting on the scoresheet feels great,” Inui said. “I’ve felt very comfortable shooting with my right foot recently, and the work I’ve put in paid off today. My second goal wasn’t much to talk about but I’ll take it.”

As Japan laid siege to Paraguay’s goal, Gotoku Sakai found Kagawa with a cross from the right. Kagawa tapped the ball into Inui’s path in the 63rd minute. Inui scuffed his shot but still scored when goalkeeper Alfredo Aguilar dived but came up empty.

Lacking coordination in attack but not energy, Japan wasted some strong early efforts by Shinji Okazaki and Yoshinori Muto to pry open the Paraguay defense.

Romero just missed scoring in the 24th minute with a piledriver through a crowded penalty area that Japan goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi failed to see coming. The ball just missed the post, but the Gamba Osaka ‘keeper was not spared a second time when he was again rooted to his spot as Romero’s second missile found its mark.

Romero nearly had another goal in the 40th minute in a one-on-one with Higashiguchi, but the keeper made amends, coming out to challenge and making a superb tackle to defuse the threat.

The second half, however, looked like a completely different game as Japan dissected Paraguay’s defense.

Fedrico Santander’s own goal made it 3-1 for Japan in the 77th minute when he deflected Shibasaki’s free kick into his own goal, but Paraguay showed its fight when Richard Ortiz narrowed the gap in the 90th minute.

Kagawa, who had missed badly in the 80th minute, made up for that 11 minutes later. He put the game on ice with a great individual effort, dribbling through the Paraguay penalty area and scoring.

“It was a game of missed opportunities for us, but it is also a 90-minute game,” Kagawa said. “This is a real confidence-booster.”

Japan’s first Group H game, next Tuesday, is against Colombia. Japan plays Senegal five days later on June 24 and Poland on June 28, the final day of group-stage games.