Japan strikes early, holds off Uruguay in thrilling friendly

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

Takumi Minamino scored a brace, while Ritsu Doan netted his first international goal, as Japan’s rising stars spearheaded a 4-3 win over Uruguay on Tuesday night.

In their third outing under manager Hajime Moriyasu, the Samurai Blue displayed an impressive attacking game as they outplayed a Uruguay side missing superstar Luis Suarez but nevertheless boasting a host of top-level talent.

Shaky Japanese defending, however, resulted in each of Uruguay’s goals, ensuring a nervous ending to what should have been a comfortable victory in the Kirin Challenge Cup friendly at Saitama Stadium.

“I want to thank everyone who watched at the stadium and on TV,” Moriyasu said. “I especially want to thank everyone who made this match possible, as it was a very important test for us.

“We came out to win and it’s great that we were able to do so. In training we discussed what we wanted to do and our concept. The players were able to display their potential and as a team they tried to do new things. I hope we can use today’s result to work toward making an even better team.”

Japan’s Yuya Osako scores a 36th-minute goal on Tuesday. | KYODO

Minamino struck the opener after 10 minutes, while Yuya Osako put Japan back in front ahead of halftime after Gaston Pereiro equalized in the 28th minute.

Edinson Cavani capitalized on a defensive mistake to draw Uruguay level once again 12 minutes into the second half, but Minamino and Doan gave Japan a two-goal buffer before substitute Jonathan Rodriguez hit the final goal in the 75th minute.

Twenty-three-year-old Salzburg forward Minamino now has four goals from five matches for Japan after finding the net in a third consecutive international, while Groningen midfielder Doan has continued to impress since debuting against Costa Rica last month.

Doan’s maiden international goal in the 59th minute was just reward for the 20-year-old, who created one opportunity after another for Japan by repeatedly winning contested balls in key areas.

After being rested for Japan’s 3-0 win over Panama on Friday, 24-year-old Portimonense midfielder Shoya Nakajima once again looked like the side’s key playmaker for the future, setting up his teammates while testing the opposing ‘keeper with long-range shots.

In his first international since this summer’s World Cup, Osako contributed the setup play that made him indispensable in Russia, creating space and attacking opportunities with his runs inside opposition territory.

Having cruised to 3-0 victories over Costa Rica and Panama, respectively, in the two previous matches under Moriyasu, Japan came into the clash expecting a tougher test against world No. 5 Uruguay, which had lost 2-1 to South Korea in the first of two friendlies in East Asia on Friday.

Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez said, “There were seven goals scored today and there could have been many more. Both teams made defensive mistakes. This wasn’t how we wanted the match to develop, but even though we were playing from behind I’m happy with how our players assertively attacked over both halves. I want to congratulate Japan. Both teams played deserving of a win.”

After using a lineup largely comprised of domestic players in Friday’s win over Panama, Moriyasu opted to use his Europe-based contingent for all but two of the starting positions.

Returning to the side were World Cup defenders Yuto Nagatomo, Hiroki Sakai and Maya Yoshida, who donned the captain’s armband following the international retirement of longtime skipper Makoto Hasebe.

Said Yoshida: “Overall we played well; we conceded three goals which shouldn’t happen, but when compared to Uruguay who are on top of the (FIFA) rankings it was a historic victory. It was a friendly and maybe they were jet lagged, but anyway we played well. I was so impressed with our players in front. (Moriyasu) was happy with them, that’s why we only substituted two players. Everyone played well, it’s hard to choose who (to take out).”

Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani ties the match in the 57th minute, scoring his team’s second goal. REUTERS

The two sides were a contrast in styles early, with Japan looking to control possession and build from the back, while the Uruguayans sought to quickly surge forward upon winning the ball.

Minamino found the net for the opener with a composed close-range strike. Receiving a diagonal through ball from Nakajima on the left, he took two dribbles to his right before beating Uruguay ‘keeper Fernando Muslera with a shot from the middle of the box.

Gamba Osaka glove man Masaaki Higashiguchi was called into action in the 17th minute, producing a close-range stop after Uruguay captain Diego Godin was on target with a header from a corner kick.

But Higashiguchi, a member of Japan’s World Cup squad who did not play in Russia, could do little to stop Uruguay’s 28th-minute equalizer. Giorgian De Arrascaeta met a free kick at the far post, heading to the feet of an unmarked Pereiro directly in front of goal.

Osako put Japan back in front nine minutes from the break when Muslera produced a diving save to stop a long-range shot from Nakajima, hitting the ball into the path of the Werder Bremen forward, who scored from a narrow angle with a half volley.

Cavani equalized after poaching a back pass from Genta Miura intended for Higashiguchi and scoring from point-blank range. Gamba defender Miura had seemingly been unaware that the Paris Saint-Germain striker was lurking behind play before making the pass.

Japan was back in front two minutes later, however, when Doan intercepted a short ball outside Uruguay’s box before getting into the area with a one-two pass from Sakai and beating Muslera in the bottom left corner with a calmly taken finish.

Japan’s Shoya Nakajima takes a shot in first-half action against Uruguay. | KYODO

Doan created the opportunity for Minamino’s second goal in the 66th minute when he once again intercepted a pass before launching a shot from the top of the arc that Muslera batted toward the Salzburg forward. With the bouncing ball rising awkwardly, Minamono hit it out of the air and into the net with an impressive half-volley strike.

Rodriguez added Uruguay’s third after the Japanese defense failed to deal with a ball lofted into the area, allowing the substitute forward to strike from the right of goal.

Japan repeatedly forced Uruguay to backpedal in the second half, with Nakajima, Doan, Minamino and Osako combining tight passing with aggressive runs around the box to create a succession of chances for Japan.

Japan awaits friendlies against Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan in November to round out its international schedule for the year before preparing for the Asian Cup, which starts in the United Arab Emirates in January.

“That will give us confidence for the Asian Cup,” said Moriyasu.

“The players have pulled together and done a great job so far. And there’s still plenty of room for them to grow as a team.”

Minamino, who scored in Japan’s 3-0 wins over Costa Rica last month and Panama last week in Moriyasu’s first two matches in charge, added: “I’m really just happy to contribute — it’s my job to score goals and hopefully I’ll get more chances.”

The Japan vs. Uruguay friendly as it happened