After woeful Korea, Asia needs Japan to step up

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden reflects on an a disappointing opening for Asia and why Japan can help lift the gloom.

MOSCOW –It is up to Japan to lift the first round of games for Asia at the 2018 World Cup from disappointing to satisfactory when the Samurai Blue take on Colombia on Tuesday afternoon. One win and three losses from the first four games has not exactly got fans around the world reassessing their feelings about football on the world’s biggest continent.

Apart from Iran who took all three points from Morocco thanks to a last-minute own goal, Australia, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have all failed to take a point. Australia lost 2-1 to France but the Socceroos gave a good account of themselves in what should be the most difficult game of their group.

While the Saudis sank to an embarrassing 5-0 thrashing in the opening game at the hands of a fairly ordinary Russia team, Korea’s 1-0 loss to Sweden on Monday in Nizhny Novgorod was in some ways more disappointing.

Sweden was never going to be an easy opponent, well-organised and hard to break down, they are responsible for Italy not making it. Yet Korea were disappointing and failed to have a single shot on target. The only other team to share that sorry statistic? That would be Saudi Arabia.

Korea were so focused on not conceding that they almost forgot to attack. The only time the Taeguk Warriors looked seriously dangerous was in injury time when Hwang Hee-chan headed wide with the goal at his mercy. There were times when the Asians got behind the defence but the final ball was just not good enough and all through the ranks, the passing was below-par. The frustration of Son Heung-min was palpable and the Tottenham Hotspur star was too deep too often and guilty of trying to do too much when the ball did come his way.

The major positive to come out of the game was goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo. The 25 year-old is known for his hairstyles in his homeland as his nickname of ‘Dae-hair shows (Dae not only reminds of the Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea but also means ‘great’ in Korean). He had made just a handful of appearances for the national team and going into the tournament he was not regarded as the number one goalkeeper but now Kim Seung-gyu is unlikely to get back in the team.

Cho has been one of the most impressive goalkeepers of the tournament so far and had he saved the penalty then it would have been a sensational performance. As it was it was merely highly impressive. Kim Young-gwon looked like he was back to old self in the middle of defence but there were no more positives to take from the game than there were shots on goal.

For Korea, the performance was reminiscent of 2014 World Cup and we all know how that turned out. There have to be improvements for the game against Mexico – who looked scarily good when defeating Germany 1-0. Defeat and it is all over.

This is no time for Asian fans to be pushing the panic buttons but it is time to be concerned. Japan can do Asia a big favour against Colombia. The Samurai Blue have never beaten a South American team at the World Cup and ended their stay in 2014 with a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Colombia.

Preparations have not been great. Vahid Halilhodzic was fired in April. The 4-2 win over Paraguay last weekend was a first win in six but also ended up injuring Shinji Okazaki. There is a general air of gloom that is hanging over the team that the coaching change has not lifted, indeed may have even made worse, and there are worries as to where the goals are going to come from.

There are reasons to be cheerful. The defence looks on paper to be fairly sound with the major question coming over whether Keisuke Honda will start or not. Yet expectations are so low that this Japan team should not be weighed down or burdened. The group, with Senegal and Poland, is so open that there is no team to be scared of.

A win for Japan will not only put the team in with a great chance of reaching the second round, but it will lift the growing worry that while the 2018 World Cup may not be as bad as the winless 2014 tournament, it may not be that much better. Hopefully, Asia has saved its best for last.