Japan progress

Japan progress

By Nobuyuki Tosey

Japan booked their place in the quarter finals of London 2012 and added to the belief they could collect a medal at these games, with another 1-0 victory against a strong Moroccan side.

Kensuke Nagai scored the crucial late goal

After the ecstasy that surrounded the win over the Spanish, it was always a possibility that Japan would struggle to replicate the intensity of their previous performance. Not only that, but this time round Japan would have to draw on very different qualities, in a win that required a lot more patience & good fortune than their opener.

Lining up with same formation and personnel bar Gotoku Saki coming in for the slightly injured Hiroki Sakai, whereas the patient build-up of Spain arguably suited Japan, the direct attacks of Morocco would prove harder to deal with in a first half largely dominated by the North Africans.

Indeed Japan could have found themselves behind as early as the sixth minute, when a rare lack of miscommunication between the centre back pairing of Daisuke Suzuki & Maya Yoshida allowed Nordin Amrabat to get in behind the defence. Yoshida was fortunate to avoid more contact when finding himself the wrong side of the striker, but did just enough to cause the Galatasaray man to lose the ball under his feet.

Added to the threat of the bullish front man, Zakaria Labyad has already caught the eye for many so far this tournament and would have increased his number of admirers with this performance. Having shown his intent with a long shot as early as the fourt minute, the tricky winger was causing problems by regularly appearing on both flanks with the intent of finding Amrabat.

Takashi Sekizuka’s decision to play the right footed Yuhei Tokunaga at left back and Gotoku Sakai on the opposite side was strange considering the latter has regularly turned out on the left at club level and under Sekizuka. There was more room to exploit in the channels than there was against Spain, yet Tokunaga was supportive rather than overlapping in a formation that requires its full backs to provide the width and the fluidity of the team suffered.

It was unsurprising therefore that the chances Japan would create towards the end of the first half were both from set pieces and not open play. First Daisuke Suzuki had his header saved right on the line from an Ogihara corner from the left & then Maya Yoshida should have hit the target from Kiyotake’s from the right.

There were indications towards the end of the first half that Morocco would tire & that the game would open up and allow Japan to play to their strengths rather than simply do their best to nullify their opponents.

It would prove to be the case. The second half saw the midfield of Japan play their game higher up the pitch and after Otsu was denied by a solid save from the Moroccan keeper, Yamaguchi rather thrashed at his chance after being put through by a wonderful first time pass from Nagai.

Kiyotake looked the player most likely to be the source of creativity for Japan and after hitting the bar with a well hit left footed strike from the edge of the area, it was from his long ball that Kensuke Nagai would find the winner in the 84th minute.

Goalkeeper Mohamed Amsif made a terrible decision in rushing out of his area to come get the ball, but Nagai not only showed fantastic speed, but the composure to lift it over the keeper with first time with the outside of his right.

Nagai’s performance was revelatory of both his flaws and the reason why he is so important to the side. Having played to the strengths of the Nagoya front man so well in the Spain game, the service and support from the attacking midfield trio was oddly lethargic on this occasion and required Nagai to play with his back to goal and hold up the ball to a level he was often unable to reach.

The scene at St James' Park ahead of the game (photo courtesy of Sean Carroll)

However, his tireless running continued to create space for others and stretch defenders, and despite the amount of ground covered in both this & the Spain game, it was no surprise to see Sekizuka leave him on and for him to still have the speed and fitness to latch onto the ball to get the winner so late in the game.

That same level of focus is evident right through the team and was exemplified yet again when Japan suffered one more major scare before the final whistle came. Labyad again being the threat, got in round the back to collect a flick on but was thwarted one on one by the excellent Shuichi Gonda, before Omar El Kaddouri’s follow up was blocked by the covering Maya Yoshida.

Japan now head into the final game knowing that should they avoid defeat, they are all but certain to avoid Brazil and could well face Belarus, a team they beat in preparation for the games.

Honduras’ Jerry Bengtson has scored all three of his country’s goals at the tournament so far and much like his marshalling of Amrabat, Maya Yoshida will need to do a similar job if Japan is to secure the easier route.

The match will also be an opportunity for Japan to rest the likes of Nagai, Otsu and Kiyotake, with Saito, Sugimoto & Usami all possibilities to come in and stake their claim for a start in the quarter finals.

But while there may be changes in personnel, the threat of Honduras won’t be taken lightly by the cautious Takashi Sekizuka, as Japan will look to build on the momentum their two victories have provided so far.

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