Japan's three eye-catching players in Europe, Keisuke Honda, Maya Yoshida and Shinji Kagawa, proved their unquestionable class by scoring a goal each in a totally dominant 3-0 home victory over Cambodia in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers at the well-filled Saitama Stadium yesterday.
Having nearly 80 per cent possession in this Group E encounter, Japan virtually pitched their tent in the Cambodian half, hardly allowing the visitors any leeway for even a mild counterattack .
Such was Japan’s stranglehold on the game that only once did a Cambodian player manage to get past the firewall, but eventually Kouch Sokhumpeak’s attempted header from the edge of the box fell safely into the hands of the goalkeeper.
That was to be the only positive for coach Lee Tae Hoon who was forced by the sheer star power of the opposition to employ ultra-defensive tactics with almost the entire side falling back to defend.
But for goalkeeper Sou Yaty’s heroics in fending off several sharp scoring attempts by Japan’s marauding strikers, the score would have been much bigger.
The victory came as a huge relief for manager Vahid Halihodzic, who had come under increasing pressure after highly rated Japan were held to an embarrassing goalless draw by Singapore at the start of the campaign in June.
The Bosnian, who took control of the Japanese national team earlier this year, had gone without a win in the last four competitive matches.
Japan travel in a joyous mood to Tehran in the next few days to meet Afghanistan on September 8, while Cambodia, having suffered their third straight defeat, return home to face Syria at the Olympic Stadium on the same day.
A visibly tense Halihodzic watched his side miss several opportunities to score in the early stages, often raising both his hands in sheer disappointment.
But approaching the half-hour mark, Italian Serie A star for AC Milan Keisuke Honda changed the complexion of the game, the manager’s demeanour and the mood in the stands with a thunderous strike with his trusty left foot.
Japan crossed over with that Honda goal, but within the first 15 minutes after the restart, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and Borussia Dortmund striker Shinji Kagawa had produced stunning efforts to beat Sou Yaty.
Japan kept piling on the pressure, but somehow Cambodia managed to arrest the score-line, disappointing though it was in the end for both Lee Tae Hoon and the players.
H s Manunath