Japan lost to Ukraine as their preparations for the World Cup took another demoralising blow. The friendly, billed as Japan’s annual Kirin Cup, took place at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne in Liege, Belgium.
Ukraine took a first-half lead as Yaroslav Rakitskiy’s deflected shot found its way past goalkeeper Eiwa Kawashima.
Japan rallied to equalise shortly before half-time after a deep free-kick from Getafe’s Gaku Shibasaki found the head of centre-half Tomoaki Makino. It was a close range effort but Shakhtar Donetsk’s Andrij Pyatov might have done better to deny him.
They couldn’t respond a second time, after Yevhen Konoplyanka, who was dangerous throughout, cutback to find unmarked substitute Oleksandr Karavayev. He had time and space to finish convincingly.
2-1 did not reflect how dominant Ukraine were. The underwhelming performance, more so than the defeat, will have concerned Japan’s veteran coach, Yugoslavian Vahid Halilhodzic.
Here’s what this friendly told us about what to expect from Japan at the World Cup:
Unconvincing group preparation
Having been drawn against Colombia, Poland and Senegal in an open and unpredictable World Cup group, Japan have made the classic move of arranging friendlies with the near-neighbours of their opponents in Russia.
With a match against Paraguay in the summer seemingly preparing them for Colombia, and last week’s draw against Mali in advance of Senegal, Ukraine evidently represents the groundwork for Poland.
The good news for Japan is that despite being their neighbours, Ukraine play in a different style to Poland and have different strengths and weaknesses.
They are dangerous on the flanks as Konoplyanka demonstrated by tearing them apart. Fortunately for Japan, Poland do not possess wingers with such quality - although, they should fear Senegal’s Sadio Mane.
The bad news is that Poland are a much better team than Ukraine: they defeated them at Euro 2016 and qualified for the World Cup convincingly. Ukraine also lack a focal point as good as Robert Lewandowski - Japan will need a vast improvement in their defensive organisation against one of the best strikers in the world.
That Japan were outclassed by an average Ukraine and needed a late equaliser against Mali, ranked 67th in the FIFA Rankings, is not an encouraging sign. On this evidence, they will struggle to make it out of a tricky group.
Keisuke Honda is nothing to fear (but others might be)
Japan’s star man impressed in Japan’s last two World Cup appearances but his career has failed to live up to the potential many predicted.
His move to AC Milan occasionally showed promise, but just eleven total goals in three and a half years in Italy was a disappointing return. Now plying his trade in Mexico’s Liga MX, he has a solid one-in-three record for Pachuca, with seven goals in 21 appearances. It’s a strong league, but undoubtedly a step down from one of Europe’s strongest countries.
He was well nullified against a Ukrainian defence that has otherwise been far from convincing. Substituted after 65 minutes, he was quiet and subdued - a shadow of the presence that was so eye-catching in Brazil and South Africa.
Japan’s upcoming opponents might be more concerned about Gaku Shibasaki, who floated in an excellent ball for Japan’s equaliser and has looked lively for Getafe. He received international attention after scoring a sumptuous against Barcelona earlier this season.
Shoya Nakajima is another name to look out for. The attacking midfielder has arguably been Portimonense’s best player this season - racking up an impressive 18 goals and assists in the Portuguese league.
Having scored the late equaliser against Mali, he looked likely to do the same here after being brought on after 80 minutes - his energy and proactive approach was something Japan were lacking in his absence.
Ukraine were lacking their best player and most potent attacker, Borussia Dortmund’s Andriy Yarmolenko, yet still scored two goals and created several more opportunities.
Marlos, of Brazilian descent but having declared for Ukraine, and Konoplyanka appeared to find it easy to cut through their defence - if they had a high-calibre striker, it could have been more.
Tomoaki Makino did well to score Japan’s goal, but looked unsound at the heart of their defence.
Japan conceded just seven goals in 10 games as they topped their qualifying group, but that solidity has crumbled ever since. There are organised and solid teams in the Asian qualifying group but none have real potency in the final third.
There’s a strong case that it insufficiently prepares Japan for the strongest teams - especially when they’ll be up against the likes of Mane, Lewandowski, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao.
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