Japan favourites! Are you having a laugh?

Asian Cup 2011

An Italian walks into a bar in Tokyo and asks for a local brew, but not wishing to disappoint, the barman discreetly pours the visitor a Peroni instead.

It's a plausible scenario in a country like Japan, where citizens are eager to please and equally desperate to avoid criticism.

Perhaps that's why the Japanese press were quick to turn a blind eye to another poor performance from the Samurai Blue at the Asian Cup in Qatar, as Alberto Zaccheroni's men laboured to a 2-1 win over a spirited but technically inferior Syria.

Japan... favourites! Are you having a laugh?

A heaving press box at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium had plenty to write about, but while it might have been one of the more incident-packed games of the tournament, Japan's narrow victory was hardly an advertisement for the best East Asian football has to offer.

Perhaps the sight of hulking giants Maya Yoshida and Ryoichi Maeda in the starting eleven should have given it away – Zaccheroni may have headed east, but his is still very much an Italian mentality.

Nevermind that Japan possess two speedy wing-backs in Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo, neither man ventured forward with any real conviction.

Uchida may as well have been twiddling away on his Nintendo Wii for all his offensive input, and while the Schalke defender has clearly bulked up since arriving in Germany, he's lost much of the attacking verve which made him such a dangerous player in the J. League.

The young defender wasn't the only player who looked lost against the Syrians, as Yasuhito Endo turned in another ponderous performance in midfield.

"Even when we were down to 10 players we performed like we had 11," explained Zaccheroni after the dismissal of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, but ironically Japan practically started with 10 players, so limited was Endo's input.

Endo's disappearing act was in stark contrast to midfield partner Makoto Hasebe, as the skipper continually drove the Samurai Blue forward, unleashing a number of bone-crunching tackles and scoring the all-important opener to break Syria's stubborn resistance.

Hasebe and World Cup star Keisuke Honda were clearly Japan's 'go-to' men, yet Honda's constant penchant for cutting inside – under instruction from Zaccheroni – robbed Japan of much-needed width.

At times the Syrians fielded a six-man midfield, but it didn't stop Honda or Daisuke Matsui from trying to bulldoze through it when some simple overlapping from Uchida and Nagotomo would have created space.

As it was, Japan managed to sneak home thanks to a disputed penalty; and even then, star man Honda almost botched a spot-kick which only just squeezed through Mosab Balhous' legs.

Zaccheroni later called the match "totally one-sided," which hardly explains why captain Hasebe celebrated his goal with such zeal.

Nor does it say much about Japan's composure, after several players launched prolonged complaints following referee Mohsen Torky's decision to award a contentious penalty and dismiss the unlucky Kawashima.

So Japan march on to a final-day clash with Saudi Arabia with their fate still very much in their own hands: did anyone truly expect less?

A more pertinent question is whether the Samurai Blue deserve their status as one of the tournament favourites?

On the basis of their 2-1 win over Syria, probably not.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com


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