Japan have been efficient if not spectacular in their defense of the Asian Cup. They dealt with Palestine easily and eased past Iraq. Against Jordan the Japanese had a chance to finish Group D on top with a 100% record and set themselves up for a mouthwatering with the technically proficient United Arab Emirates.
Jordan for their part had a chance of advancing to the quarters provided they defeated Japan.
The Japanese notched up a regulation win with little fuss and didn’t allow Jordan to get into the game. However, this was not the complete performance from Japan and in truth they should have been out of sight by the time the first half ended.
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1. Okazaki vital to Japan’s hopes:
Japan are a neat and tidy side full of talented technicians like Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Takashi Inui but despite the blistering start to the game Japan were trying to be a bit too intricate at times. Shinji Okazaki was key to breaking the deadlock in the 24th minute getting into a good position on the left hand side of the penalty area and opting to shoot instead of trying to cross the ball for a teammate to tap in.
Okazaki’s effort forced Jordanian keeper Amer Shafi into a good save but the latter only succeeded in deflecting the ball into Keisuke Honda’s path.
On top of his willingness to shoot Okazaki’s work rate was phenomenal. He was vital to Japan’s game plan to pin the Jordanians in their own half. Defensively, he worked hard to close down the opposition and press the ball. When his team were on the front foot he made a number of intelligent runs, creating space and options for his teammate.
Okazaki provides a directness that Japan don’t otherwise possess. His importance to the Samurai Blue cannot be understated.
2. Technique and intensity a winning combination for the Samurai Blue:
Japan started off like a whirlwind and didn’t allow Jordan any time to settle in the match. Intense pressing, quick passing and intelligent runs off the ball made Japan almost impossible to live with. The hardworking Okazaki gave the Jordanian defense no time to think whilst Kagawa, Honda and Takashi Inui constantly interchanged positions posing different questions to the Jordanian backline. The full backs Yuto Nagatomo and Gōtoku Sakai had the freedom to raid down the flanks taking advantage Honda’s and Inui’s infield darts from wide areas.
If there was a surprise it was that the goal didn’t come sooner. That’s something that Japan will have to be wary of as the likes of Australia and the UAE found out to their cost it doesn’t matter how well you play, how many passes you make or how much possession you have if that dominance does not translate into goals then there’s always the danger of being hit with a sucker punch.
3. Amer Shafi stemmed the tide:
Apparently, Amer Shafi’s nickname is the ‘whale of Asia’. Sounds like a rather cruel moniker but perhaps an apt one because for the most part whatever Japan threw at him he repelled and kept his team in the game especially in the first half. He was called into action almost immediately at the start of the second half when he bravely dived on a loose ball to deny Okazaki and had the air and authority of a top class goalkeeper.
It was noticeable that the defense trusted him and had faith in their stopper to deal with whatever came his way.
Shafi could have and should have done better with Japan’s second goal as Kagawa’s shot was directed right at him but given the sheer number of shots against him in this tournament an error was bound to happen.
The standard of goalkeeping in the AFC Asian Cup has been mixed but Shafi can look back at his Asian Cup campaign with a sense of satisfaction emerging as one of the better goalkeepers in the tournament.
4. Butch’s game plan falls flat but he had limited options
Ray Wilkins was an animated figure on the touchline. After seeing his team overwhelmed by Japan in the first half the Englishman rang in the changes at halftime bringing on Ahmad Hayel and Munther Abu Amrah. They helped their side going forward as in the first half Hamza Al-Dardour, who scored four goals in their last game against Palestine, cut a lonely figure upfront.
The duo provided much needed support for Al-Dardour as Jordan saw more of the ball in the second half as Jordan switched to a 4-4-2 from a 4-5-1.
Starting the game playing a 4-5-1 system was understandable but the formation coupled with the lack of pressing from the Jordanians only encouraged Japan to attack over and over again.
Remember Jordan needed a win to advance to the knockouts so ceding the initiative right from the first whistle seemed counter-productive.
Wilkins additionally instructed his side to pressurize the ball in the second half. Initially the plan did pay off as Jordan fought their way back into the match creating a couple of half chances.
Ultimately, their blunt attack and lack of poise showed and Japan quickly got back into their stride.
5. Are Japan too clever for their own good?
Watching Japan swarm forward is a beautiful sight to behold. The patterns and intricate play can cut open teams especially when done at pace. However, there are points where they over elaborate and let the opposition off the hook. It’s ok when playing like that against Asia’s lesser lights but they can’t afford to be so generous when up against the big guns like Iran or Australia.
Honda was class throughout the match constantly causing problems with his positional play, awareness and creativity but he should have had more than just the one goal to his name.
Japan are no doubt one of the best teams in the tournament but they can afford to be a little more ruthless and a little less flashy.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Japanese backline respond to a spell of consistent pressure. This wasn’t the match to judge the defensive resoluteness of Makoto Hasebe, Maya Yoshida, Masoto Morishige and Eiji Kawashima.
From an overall perspective tricks and flicks are nice but goals are better though.
Up next the United Arab Emirates.
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