Japan leave it late to force Mali draw

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Japan’s preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup continued in unconvincing fashion as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Mali at Stade Maurice Dufrasne.

With less than two months to go before they kick off their Russia 2018 campaign, the Samurai Blue were looking to find form against African opposition that had failed to qualify for the tournament.

Yet, it was Mali who were presented with the perfect opportunity to break the deadlock when they were awarded a penalty after Tomoya Ugajin caught Moussa Djenepo with a reckless swing of his right leg.

Abdoulay Diaby stepped up to the spot and made no mistake in handing his side a 43rd-minute lead, emphatically dispatching his shot beyond Kosuke Nakamura’s despairing dive and into the far corner.

Despite creating their fair share of chances, it initially looked as though Japan would be on the losing end as they failed to find the equaliser, despite the second-half introductions of foreign-based stars like Keisuke Honda and Gotoku Sakai.

But, in the fourth minute of injury-time, they finally forced the draw after Mali failed to clear their lines, paving the way for Kento Misao to lift the ball towards the back post for fellow substitute Shoya Nakajima to finish from close range.

Friday’s match in Liege was Japan’s first since last December’s EAFF E-1 Football Championship, where they fielded a fully domestic-based side and beat China and DPR Korea, but also lost 4-1 to Korea Republic, who were also without a host of star names like Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng.

But, excluding that regional tournament, the Samurai Blue have now gone their last four matches without victory and Vahid Halilhodzic will be desperate for his charges to get back to winning ways against Ukraine next Tuesday.

JAPAN: Kosuke Nakamura, Tomoya Ugajin (Gotoku Sakai 46’), Gen Shoji, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo, Ryota Oshima (Hotaru Yamaguchi 35’), Makoto Hasebe (Kento Misao 60’), Ryota Morioka (Yu Kobayashi 65’), Yuya Kubo (Keisuke Honda 71’), Takashi Usami (Shoya Nakajima 60’), Yuya Osako.

MALI: Djigui Diarra (Mamadou Samassa 46’), Falaye Sacko, Molla Wague (Abdoul Karim Dante 61’), Mamadou Fofana, Bakaye Dibassy (Charles Traore 61’), Adama Traore (Hadi Sacko 78’), Lassana Coulibaly, Souleymane Diarra, Amadou Haidara, Abdoulay Diaby (Yves Bissouma 84’), Moussa Djenepo (Nouha Dicko 61’).