Friday, July 27, 2007

No need for Japan to panic after semifinal loss

No need for Japan to panic after semifinal loss.
Three moments of brilliance from two star strikers was all it took for Saudi Arabia to pull the plug on Japan’s quest for a third-straight Asian Cup title.
Yasser Al Qahtani scored the opener and Malek Maaz bagged a brace as the Saudis somewhat fortuitously knocked off Japan 3-2 in the semifinals in Hanoi on Wednesday.

Japan ebbed and flowed and their passing was so fluid in the first half that many pundits, including this one, suspected the game would soon turn into a rout for the defending champions.

But the Saudis soaked up the pressure and Japan proved once again that their bark is much worse than their bite.

Japan has lamented the absence of a forward with a killer instinct since the first Japanese kicked a ball around at the beginning of the 20th century. And although striker Naohiro Takahara certainly showed flashes of it at this tournament, scoring 4 times, he hardly made a blip on the radar in the semis.
Ditto Seiichiro Maki, ditto substitutes Hisato Sato and Kisho Yano.

Japan’s midfielders were guilty of attempting one too many passes instead of going for goal, and the Saudis were content to sit back and watch Japan work give-and-go after give-and-go until the cows came home.

The most striking thing about Japan’s performance, however, was how exhausted the players looked. Coach Ivica Osim had said prior to the match that he was prepared to take the blame for sticking with his usual starting XI even though he knew they would be knackered after playing four matches in some truly trying conditions, namely the plus-30-degree heat and choking humidity.
Sure enough, Japan ran emphatically out of gas in the second half. Takahara, Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo looked particularly spent, and even defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Yuji Abe were uncharacteristically absentminded at the back, with the pace and guile of Al Qahtani and Maaz compounding the problem.

Still, it was a match Japan could have won. The tactics Osim employed made those used by counterpart Helio dos Anjos look positively primitive, the only difference being that the Saudis capitalized on some wonderful individual play while Japan’s teamwork came apart at the seams in the final third of the pitch.
But there will be no inquest as to why Japan failed to win their third successive title, and there will be few calls for Osim to resign.

South Korea coach Pim Verbeek is in the hot seat, Australia manager Graham Arnold is almost certain to get canned, but Osim’s job is secure. Japan exhibited enough positives at the tournament to assure that. Unfortunately, not when it mattered most.

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