09/07/2007

Late goal spoils Japan’s plans

The contrasts between Bangkok and Hanoi become obvious as soon as you leave the airport. While the ride to the city in Bangkok passes loads of industrial units, houses and other developments, the first thing you see at Hanoi are paddy fields – there are even fields filling the small area between the main road and the airport runway. As one heads into town, other factors become noticeable. The tall and narrow buildings that have come about due to some old tax law. These wonderful buildings are all painted on the front, but many of them have side aspects of bare plaster, as if they were once part of a block, but the houses either side have been knocked down. Even when one gets into the city, there often appears to a small gap between adjoining buildings, rather than a common wall. Once in the city, you have to get used to the constant buzz of scooters, the Hanoi citizens’ transport of choice. The number of scooters in Hanoi is probably exactly half the adult population, as most have two passengers, and maybe a child or two as well. At one point, the taxi stopped at a traffic interchange and was passed by a scooter where a child, no more than 5 or 6 years old, was casually reading a comic book, sandwiched between its parents as they weaved their way around the heavier traffic.

I did not have much spare time before I had to head on to the match. The weather, although dry was much hotter than it had been in Bangkok, and walking from one side of the stadium to the other in bright sunlight was almost unbearable. This may well explain why the first half was played at a slow speed with few incidents of note, both teams took on a defensive formation with only a single player committed to the attack. While it may be the choice of the two teams to start by being cagey and not to give the ball away easily, one must accept the heat as a factor. At least by kick off, some hazy cloud obscured the pitch from direct sunlight, and there was considerable wind to provide some relief.

The stadium is another elliptical bowl with a large space between the stands and the pitch – this was especially pronounced behind the goals where although the running track is actually eight lanes, there is in fact room for at least four more lanes. The lower tier continues all around the pitch, but never reaches very high. A second tier had been built the full length of both sides. These identical structures are considerably above the level of the lower tier, with a row of hospitality boxes in between. The roof, if of the ‘goalpost type’ with support from each end and a main beam across the front. At the back, a row of supports could provide considerable annoyance to anyone unlucky enough to be in the last three rows. The crowd for the game was very small, with one curve having a large group of Japanese supporters, and a fair smattering through the lower tiers of the stands. Although numerical outnumbered, the Qatar supporters could make more noise by use of a megaphone. I am not certain if it a special type of amplifier, or just the intonation from the caller, but whenever you watch a Arabic team, the chanting will always sound like the call to prayer.

The second half started following a similar pattern to that of the first – although Japan look the more accomplished team, they rarely actually present a serious threat to Qatar, (the Qatar’s solitary threat being a free kick by Mustafa Abdulla back in the 17th minute). In the first ten minutes of the second half, Japan create two serious opportunities, by Satoru Yamagishi, the midfieder most likely to support Takahara up front managed to miss the target both times. It is full back Yasuyuki Konno who fashions the opening to allow Japan to break the deadlock, both Konno and Endo had been finding space in the area on the left, but while Endo misplaced one cross, and then hesitated over the next giving Abdullah Obaid Koni time to make up the ground, Konno did not waste time, and found Takahara on the far post (also clear of a sluggish marker). A goal down, Qatar brought on Adel Mohamed to replace Waleed Abdullah as the midfielder most likely to push forward. Hussain Yaser Abdulrahman was pushed further forward on the right side, but they were not for changing the plan to keep a line of five across the back whenever the opposition had the ball.

This did not seem to be doing the trick, as it became apparent that the Gulf side had less in reserve. Japan then added Nactake Hanyu in place of Yamagishi – a change that immediately appeared to add more to their front line, even if his first shot was from a clearly offside position. Qatar’s final change was to bring on Magid Hassan, meaning that they too were to have two forwards for the final 15 minutes. Qatar’s best chances late on would be free kicks, and Japan insisted on giving them away. On 80 minutes, Mustafa Abdullah hit one just over, and then on 88, Abdullah was pushed over just outside the box. This time he left the free kick to the Uruguay born Sebastian Quintana, who powered it in. There was still time left for Japan to win the game, and Hanyu hit a golden chance just wide of the post. Qatar finished with ten men, when Hussein Yaser Abdulrahman kicked Hashimoto and saw the first red card of the tournament.

In the final analysis, Japan will be disappointed that their dominance of the second half did not result in a victory, but the passing through the midfield, and the undoubted style of Shunsuke Nakamura were not matched by the forwards. Qatar will be pleased with the point, even if it exposed shortcomings in their fitness, and with the unnecessary red card, it will rob them of a key player in later matches.

The group is now wide open, following the shock defeat in the opening game of Gulf Cup holders United Arab Emirates by Vietnam. Generally, Vietnam are considered to be one of the weaker of the host nations, but they apparently weathered a lot of first half pressure and then created the result with two second half goals. As with Qatar today, it seems that the UAE team wilted in the heat during the second half.

I now take two days away from the football, as Groups C and D get underway. I will update the reports with some views of tourism in the area, and news from the other games when I can.