By: Kento Kato
The Japanese National Soccer Team beat Saudi Arabia at home just minutes ago, which puts them into, second place in the group stage for now. But a late goal by the Saudi Arabian side in the 90th minute made sure that Saudi Arabia would stay ahead of Japan in the group. Were it not for the late Omar Othman goal, the Japanese side would have had a shot at leading the group and finishing no worse than second. However, now the group stage standings look going forward depends heavily on the Australia vs. Thai fixture. Anything but a win by Australia, and the Japanese side would maintain their 2nd place ranking but a win by the Aussies would see them atop the group and send Japan back down to 3rd.
The goal scored by Saudi Arabia marked the first time in the Japanese National Team’s history that they gave up a goal to the opposition in three straight games at their home stadium, 2002 Saitama. It was a tough way to give up a sure spot in the top 2 rankings in the group and it shows that, while the Japanese side looked to turn the corner, they are still not all the way back. Even after the lone goal given up, the Japanese side made some mistakes around the box and on the sides that allowed Saudi Arabia to get off a few good looking shots at goal for a chance at an equalizer. Regardless, they were able to pick up a huge 3 points in the group and a tally in the win column. The defense did give up another goal, but given the fact that Saudi Arabia leads all of the Asia qualifiers in goals scored, you can definitely count this as an improvement. For much of the game, the defense and midfield were able to work in sync to carry the game at their pace and Saudi Arabia had only gotten off one shot at goal before Othman’s strike that ultimately went past goalkeeper, Nishikawa.
Japan sent out a starting lineup that may have surprised many at home as regulars Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki were left out. This has long been a topic discussed domestically and even in our past articles as the two have not gotten much playing time at their current European clubs and have been a shell of themselves when they suit up for their national team. Instead, the team Yuya Osako at forward again, with Genki Haraguchi, who has now scored in all 4 games in the current stage of qualifiers, and Hiroshi Kiyotake rounding out the attack. Everyone else was a familiar face with captain Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gotoku Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Morishige Masato and Shusaku Nishikawa in goal. This mixture of older players with the fresh faces, trying to prove their worth and readiness, looked good tonight. I love that Japan is looking to win but doing so while cultivating growth for the next generation of players. This, if Japan can qualify safely, will also do them wonders at the big tournament as they will have more depth and options at those positions.
The big three who were left out of the starting lineup did come in to the game with Honda, Kagawa, and Okazaki coming in at the 46th minute, 64th, and 94th respectively. Honda was pretty active getting himself and his team opportunities add to the scoring and Kagawa was able to get himself an assist on Haraguchi’s 80th minute goal. The return of Nagatomo was something that many were keeping an eye on. He has long been considered as the most successful Japanese defender in the last decade and has been a lynchpin of the defense while being able to offer accurate crosses from the left side. But with injuries and limited play at his club, Intern Milan, he has lost his usual form as of late and many wondered how he would fair. It is hard to say that it was just him that made this defense perform better tonight, but it definitely helps to have him back and he also delivered the key cross to the aforementioned Kagawa assisted goal.
The match was hard fought and even got a bit heated as the two sides were involved in a couple scuffles and the game had 4 yellow cards handed out. With so much on the line, the game offered a lot of theatrics until the very end. With the big game now behind the two teams, the players, coaches and fans of both teams turn their attention to the fixture between Australia and Thailand, which sees Thailand up 2-1 at the moment.