From the moment Japan and Turkmenistan stepped onto the Al Nahyan Stadium pitch wearing their respective first uniforms of blue and green, fans watching on TV and online complained of a color clash making for difficult viewing.
That turned out to be far from the most unsightly thing on display in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night as an error-prone Japan barely managed a 3-2 win over Turkmenistan in its 2019 Asian Cup group stage opener.
“We somehow won,” head coach Hajime Moriyasu said after the final whistle. “We knew that the first match would be difficult, and this is proof of how challenging the Asian Cup is.”
Anyone who observed the Samurai Blue’s heroic display against Belgium just seven months ago in the 2018 World Cup might be surprised to read that victory against Turkmenistan, the No. 127 FIFA-ranked nation sandwiched between Central Asian powerhouses Uzbekistan to the north and Iran in the south, required Japan to fight back from a 1-0 deficit.
Moriyasu’s men managed — but only just so — thanks to a competent pair of Yuya Osako goals in the 56th and 60th minutes which resuscitated the four-time Asian champions from the brink of an embarrassing result.
“It’s good that I was able to score in the first match when we needed a goal,” Osako told reporters. “We have a lot to reflect on from today and next time we have to play with more feeling.”
The eventual game-winner for Japan came in the 71st minute from a blistering strike hit so hard by Ritsu Doan that the Turkmenistan player who deflected it into the net should have been stretchered off and checked for bruises.
It was sweet redemption for the Groeningen winger, whose poor turnover near Turkmenistan’s penalty area led to the opening goal by Arslanmurat Amanov.
“I didn’t feel like apologizing at halftime,” Doan said. “I was only focused on getting that goal back during the match.”
His left-footed effort went down in history as the 20-year-old became the youngest Japanese player to score at the Asian Cup.
“I was surprised to see that on my phone,” revealed Doan. “With so many (Japanese) legends retiring, I’m ready to take up the mantle, and in that sense I’m glad I could score that goal.”
The day did not go as well for Doan’s partner in crime, Takumi Minamino. While the Salzburg attacker assisted Doan’s goal with a clever one-touch pass, he struggled to find shots and was Japan’s lone substitution in the 73rd minute.
“I didn’t have many opportunities to shoot and that’s something I need to work on, so I’m not satisfied with my performance,” Minamino said.
“We made lots of small mistakes and easy mistakes and received a lot of counters after bad turnovers.
“It was a difficult match but what’s important is that we won.”
Japan was certainly not helped by its hesitant defenders, who too often approached the green-clad attackers with the stilted apprehension of a 13-year-old at their first school dance.
Equally to blame was goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, who completely misjudged Amanov’s rocket from distance in the 26th minute and gave Turkmenistan a chance to fight for a draw when he took down Altymyrat Annadurdyyev in the penalty area, gifting the underdogs a goal from the spot courtesy of Ahmet Atayew with over 10 minutes remaining.
“You could see it from the score but mentally I was impatient,” admitted Gonda. “As part of the defense my mission is to not allow any goals, but I let them score on a counter and from midrange.”
The 29-year-old, who guided Japan to an impressive fourth-place finish at the London Olympics, has experienced a revival at Sagan Tosu following a battle with overtraining syndrome at his former club FC Tokyo and two seasons in Austria’s lower leagues with SV Horn.
Gonda surrendered just 34 goals in the 2018 J1 campaign, earning him a nomination for the Best XI, a return to the national team, and a second chance in Europe, with Portuguese media reporting that he has already signed a 2½-year deal with Portimonense.
Yet the Tokyo native, who to his credit made several good saves at other points in the match, did not make a clear case for why he should start over Gamba Osaka’s Masaaki Higashiguchi, who leads Japan’s goalkeeper trio with seven caps to Gonda’s six and Daniel Schmidt’s one.
“Our opponents are going to look at the game footage and think that if they aim their shots in that direction they can get past me,” Gonda reflected.
“This match made me realize that I have to improve even more if Japan is going to reach the top.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Gonda’s performance is that Japan is poorer for the absence of Kosuke Nakamura.
The Kashiwa Reysol netminder, Rio Olympian and World Cup backup has been touted as the country’s future between the posts. Instead, he suffered a pair of concussions in 2018 and will see his international development delayed even further having missed out on the Asian Cup.
Another key absence in the squad is Shoya Nakajima, the talented Portimonense midfielder who has formed a flashy trio with Minamino and Doan in recent internationals. His withdrawal from the squad due to a leg injury has undoubtedly taken some dynamism out of Japan’s attack.
But Moriyasu was already looking ahead to key encounters against regular World Cup qualifying opponents Oman and brawny Uzbekistan.
“Our theme for this tournament is improving at all aspects,” said Moriyasu following his competitive debut.
“We need to put in the best preparations possible for the Oman game, because we want to grow as a team and earn that win.”