OITA – Hiroki Sakai struck his first senior international goal before conceding a penalty Friday night as Japan drew 1-1 with Venezuela but stayed unbeaten under head coach Hajime Moriyasu.
Having arrived at Oita Bank Dome less than 45 minutes before kickoff after their bus was stuck in a traffic jam, the Samurai Blue struggled to find their groove early against the South Americans.
But after some nervous moments, the hosts seemed to have the Kirin Challenge Cup friendly under control from midway through the first half.
Right back Sakai, playing his 49th international, scored 10 minutes from halftime when he turned in Shoya Nakajima’s long free kick with an acrobatic volley at the far post.
Following a foul on Ritsu Doan near the right touchline, Portimonense playmaker Nakajima curled the free kick past the Venezuelan defensive line and into the path of Sakai as he flew toward the left of goal.
But the Marseille defender turned from hero to goat with 10 minutes left in the match when he gifted the visitors a spot kick with a clumsy foul on substitute Luis Gonzalez.
Captain Tomas Rincon equalized from the spot after sending debutant Japan goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt in the wrong direction.
Olympic head coach and former World Cup assistant Moriyasu was looking to build on his unblemished record of three wins from three matches, the most recent of which was a 4-3 result against Uruguay at Saitama Stadium a month ago.
Moriyasu stuck with the attacking formula that proved successful against Uruguay, starting striker Yuya Osako in front of the trio of Nakajima, Doan and Takumi Minamino, who had scored four goals in his last three internationals.
The manager made a number of defensive changes, however, returning Sint-Truiden center back Takehiro Tomiyasu to the starting lineup alongside captain Maya Yoshida, while giving American-born Vegalta Sendai ‘keeper Schmidt his first cap.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Sho Sasaki started in the left-back slot usually occupied by veteran Yuto Nagatomo, who is still recovering from a collapsed lung he suffered while playing for Galatasaray in the UEFA Champions League late last month.
Tomiyasu saved Schmidt’s blushes on the stroke of 11 minutes, rushing back for a goal-line clearance after Newcastle United forward Salomon Rondon rounded the ‘keeper and fired from inside the box toward an open goal.
Malaga wing back Roberto Rosales looked to give Venezuala the lead from the top right of the box in the 25th minute, but sent his attempt wide across the face of goal.
Doan almost put Japan ahead a minute later, chipping over the goalkeeper but just wide of the left post. His shot was the final touch in a well-worked attacking movement in which Osako set up Doan inside the box with a short cross.
Osako again put a teammate in scoring position in the 34th minute when he found Nakajima running toward goal with a diagonal through ball. Venezuela ‘keeper Rafael Romo was quickly off his line, however, just getting a hand to Nakajima’s shot from inside the area.
Japan started the second half aggressively and looked capable of stretching the lead. But the hosts were unable to capitalize on their greater possession and 12-6 advantage in the shot count.
Genki Haraguchi provided an attacking spark after coming on for Nakajima in the 68th minute. He caused trouble for the Venezuelan defense with strong runs from the left and forced a save from a close-range shot in the 75th minute.
Yoshida looked to have scored the winner when he headed home a cross from substitute Junya Ito in injury time, but the referee’s assistant had already raised his flag for offside.