Advantage – Japan

Before heading to the stadium, I went to a brewpub not far away. A friend of mind had started me on visiting micro breweries while on tour. It is a way of expanding the drinking experience beyond the staple lagers available across Asia. Some older micro breweries in places such as Japan and the USA also produce introducing and original beers of their own – but the one I went to “Erreson’s”, is part of a new generation where the brewery equipment and expertise is imported as a unit, and hence repeats the same brews in several places.

There is also a tendency to mimic a Bavarian Beer Hall in their appearance, in order to create a different experience for the locals. This was one of those types, with a large hall – thankfully well air conditioned. Food wise, there was a selection – I chose a local stir fry dish, while a local family set near me were seen to be eating a large hock of pork, German style in a cram sauce. Oddly, the locals were still given chopsticks even to eat a meat on the bone, while my white skin relegated me to Thai style fork and spoon, until I complained and got the chopsticks as well. I was a little disappointed when entering, as there was no sign of a TV to see the early game, but then just before half time, they started projecting it onto a large part of one wall. This prompted me to buy a second drink and stay to the end. Iraq were 1-0 up against Australia when the game was switched on, but the Aussies quickly equalised at the start of the second half. If one expected them to now show their strength, then the game did not live up to expectations, and despite having much of the possession, Australia rarely looked dangerous up front. Their defence clearly expected the Iraqis to give up possession just as readily. The Iraqis did not, and instead scored two goals more. This means that when the final matches come up in Group A, Iraq and Thailand will start with four points, Oman and Australia with just one each. But there is an odd quirk of mathematics to come. As head to head is the first rule to separate teams level on points, both Oman and Australia know that any win in the final match will put them through – so long as the other one of the pair does not also win! That is, if Australia beat Thailand, they are sure to qualify so long as Oman do not beat Iraq! If both Australia and Oman win, then goal difference comes into play – meaning both need a three goal win to be certain of qualifying, while a 1-0 certainly will not do in this case.

Finishing my viewing, my beer and my meal, a short taxi journey took me to My Dinh stadium, where despite the kick off being an our later than the previous night, the temperature and the humidity were both up again. UAE started playing 4-1-4-1 with Helal Saeed protecting the back four and just Mater up front. Japan went for 4-4-2, although their midfield has a tendency to be move inwards, Takahara was joined in attack by Maki. With good support for the forward, especially from Jumaa and Al Shehhi, UAE had the better of the opening exchanges, but this all changed in the middle of the half. With four minutes, Japan powered into a two goal lead, and it was Takahara that applied the finishing touches both times, taking his tally in the tournament to three. The first was down to Shunsuke Nakamura, nominally the right winger, but now inside the area and on the left – he just managed to pull a cross back from the by-line, for Takahara to head in. Four minutes later, full back Kaji knocked in an angled cross from the right. Takahara found himself with time enough to bring the ball down under control before hitting it to the corner of the net. As the half continued, it looked as if Japan were not settling for two, as Japan continued to create chances. To add to the UAE misery, they scored a third through an incomprehensible 40th minute penalty. A cross from the right found Endo in space, but he miscued his shot, wide of the far post, where Takahara came close to converting it (with his hand). The UAE keeper had come out towards where an accurate shot may have gone, and somehow managed to impede Endo after he had released his shot. Shunsuke Nakamura completed the misery for the Emirates.

Three nil down at half time, and needed a point just to have a poor chance of going through – the coach has to change things around, and so two substitutes came on at the break. This could have been to no avail. Endo was given space before the announcer had finished naming them, but fortunately (for UAE’s chances), shot into the side netting. The defensive grouping was left unchanged, but right winger Khaled Darwish was replaced by Ahmed Mohamed Al Mohari, while Saeed Alkas gave the side a second man up front, replacing central midfielder Essa Ali. There was no immediate sign of a revival in UAE’s fortunes – in fact, eight minutes into the second half, there was another self-inflicted problem, when a reckless two footed challenge by Bashir Saeed earned the red card. Shunsuke Nakamura’s free kick almost earned another goal, and UAE were forced to bring on Qassim Al Balooshi in order to keep their defensive line intact, now taking up a 4-4-1 formation.

One may have expected that the last 30 minutes would be a walk in the park for Japan, but after Shunsuke Nakamura forces another save after 61 minutes, it is the UAE who score. Casual Japanese defenders look on as Mohamed Al Mohari runs through the midfield and pushes the ball to fellow substitute Saeed Alkas to slide home.

That Japan are not worried by the event is shown as they immediately take off Takahara and bring on Hanyu – guilty of several missed chances in their last game. And then, after Kawaguchi has to go full stretch to stop a shot from Mater, a second substitution, as Shunsuke Nakamura is replaced by Mizuno. Japan think they game is won, but with their best two players off the field, their play rapidly deteriorates abd become ragged. A third substitution is forced when Suzuki goes down injured, and is replaced by Konno.

With UAE fighting for every ball (sometimes too hard), you could senses that the game could not end soon enough for Japan, and they must were relieved that UAE are in no state to up their work rate and force the pace. A yellow card for time wasting by Kawaguchi proves the point. At the other end of the field, Japan look wasted, for despite plenty of possession, they have no force that can even threaten the goal.

In the end, Japan manage to hold on to the ball enough to kill the last ten minutes of the game, and celebrate a 3-1 victory. The result means that a draw in the last game will send them through (higher number of goals scored), while the same result would leave Vietnam listening hard to what is happening in Ho Chi Minh City (as Qatar can still rise to 5 points as well). If the last match in Qatar is won by either team, a win would be enough for Qatar.

After the game, I asked Ivica Osim if he thought his team had lost shape and direction after the substitutions, but he put it down more to being relaxed in the certainty of winning the game. In response to other questions, he said Takahara was injured, and he was not certain if he would play against Vietnam. However, he could not say who might score the goals for Japan if this was the case. For UAE, Bruno Metsu blamed the fact he had a young and inexperienced team for their early exit, added to the loss of six players through injury. He added that a team that took the game to Japan with more fight may be able to give them cause for concern.