The Socceroos’ hoodoo in recent years against the Blue Samurai continued last night, with goals from Yasuyuki Konno and Shinji Okazaki handing Japan a 2-1 victory in Nagai.
It was a difficult night for Australia for the most part, especially in the second half, as Japan controlled the match to hand the Socceroos their eighth loss in the last twelve matches ahead of the Asian Cup.
Socceroos manager Ange Postecoglou fielded a relatively experimental side for the friendly at Yanmar Stadium, with Aziz Behich, Mass Luongo and James Troisi all earning starts, while stalwarts Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano were left on the bench.
The away side started brightly enough, and Robbie Kruse, returning from a long-term injury and with little club football under his belt, started at the point of attack. Kruse linked up well with Troisi and Matthew Leckie, but in truth Australia lacked ideas in the final third and Japan dealt with a Cahill-less attack relatively easily.
The star-studded Japanese line-up, featuring European stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, grew into the game as the first half wore on and Yoshinori Muto hit the post with a header, but an offside flag saved his blushes.
Aziz Behich, was tested when opposing right back Gotoku Sakai burst around him to pick up a clever through ball. Behich was up to the task by making a last-ditch tackle, but the Japanese were gradually exposing Australia’s inexperienced back four of Behich, Alex Wilkinson, Trent Sainsbury and Ivan Franjic.
The Socceroos were not without chances themselves though, and Kruse provided a perfectly weighted cross to Leckie. He did well to power his header towards goal, but Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima was up to the task.
Sakai’s clever overlapping runs continued at the other end and a Mat Ryan header outside of the box doused a long ball delivered to the Japanese right back.
Australia often resembled Japan’s passing style with short, incisive passing marked by feint touches. But, unlike Japan, the technical skill was lacking as the Socceroos often overplayed their passes or overestimated their first touch.
Australia’s next chance came when Troisi held the ball up inside the box with his back to goal. The Zulte Waregem forward took too long on the ball with players in gold darting around him, and the Japanese defenders easily cleared his eventual pass.
Shinji Kagawa picked out Keisuke Honda with a long pass, but Ryan plucked Honda’s first time volley comfortably.
Japan looked their best right near the end of the half when Jedinak chopped down Honda before he was about let a spare team mate loose on goal. The Aussie skipper received a yellow for his efforts, and the first half finished 0-0.
The Blue Samurai looked a different side in the second period and Kagawa forced a save from Ryan. Behich was again caused problems as he was drawn into closing down Honda but was exploited by Sakai’s overlapping run, with Sainsbury saving Behich’s blushes.
Okazaki then had a close-range chance saved by after the Japanese forward tried to flick in a clever overhead pass.
Australia began giving the ball away frequently. As Postecoglou develops a possession-based style of football, his players would give the right ball during the second half, but usually at the wrong time – too early for runners to get around defenders, or too late as they were closed down by opposing players.
Sakai was influential again as a deep cross was picked up by Inui, but the fresh substitute blazed the chance over with his head.
Japan took the lead on 61 minutes through Konno. Australia’s defenders watched the ball and were all drawn to the near post, leaving Konno completely unmarked and he made no mistake from inside the goal area.
Mitch Nichols came on for Luongo and Bresciano for Troisi, but Japan doubled their lead just seven minutes after their initial breakthrough. Masato Morishige made space down the right and hit a cross towards the packed goal area, and Okazaki backheeled the ball cleverly past Ryan for a deserved 2-0 lead.
Postecoglou introduced Cahill for Matt McKay with twenty minutes remaining, and it was eventually the New York Red Bulls man who got Australia on the scoresheet, albeit a consolation.
Behich had a difficult night at left back but two minutes into injury time, he whipped a ball in from the left to Cahill, who drifted between the Japanese centre backs to head home his 36th international goal, but it was almost the last kick of the game and Japan recorded a 2-1 victory.
The Socceroos don’t have another fixture until the first group game of the Asian Cup and, on the most recent showings, Postecoglou’s task of winning the Cup on home soil seems a long shot.