Japan vs. Cyprus: 6 Things We Learned from Narrow Samurai Blue Win
Atsuto Uchida scored the only goal as Japan ran out 1-0 winners against Cyprus at the Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, as the Samurai Blue continued their preparations for this summer's World Cup in Brazil.
Despite the one-goal swing, Japan were clearly the better team in their last pre-tournament match on home soil before jetting off for further warm-up matches.
They will be playing two more friendlies, against Costa Rica and Zambia, before starting their World Cup campaign in Group C alongside Cote d'Ivoire, Greece and Colombia.
Here are six things we learned from Japan's 1-0 win over Cyprus.
Total Domination by Japan
The balance and passage of play reflected as much, but the statistics confirmed that almost everything swung in Japan's favor on Tuesday.
They ended the match with 20 shots (nine on goal) compared to Cyprus' meager total of three, 11 corner kicks versus just one and 68 per cent possession against 32.
That Eiji Kawashima was untroubled in his goal, having to make no saves at all (none of Cyprus' three shots were on target), showed just how dominant Alberto Zaccheroni's men were on the day.
Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa proved to be a key threat for the Japanese, as he created close chances for the home side to take the lead (it was his shot that led to Uchida's winner), but ultimately they had to settle for a paltry one-goal win.
While the overall display was dominant, perhaps the result confirmed a few suspicions ahead of the match: Japan wouldn't have to move out of first gear in order to register a win over Cyprus.
Some of their approach play was lethargic, and their work rate in the middle of the park was unconvincing—Keisuke Honda was particularly guilty of pulling out of 50-50 challenges in the midfield.
Said Zaccheroni after the match, per The Japan Times, "The team played alright, but we had a physically demanding camp in Ibusuki so we weren't in top condition but our decision-making was good."
That says it all about their approach to the match.
Underwhelming Performance Leads to Underwhelming Result
The result will have no doubt disappointed a turnout of 58,564 at the Saitama Stadium, who will have expected a flurry of goals in what promised to be a straightforward encounter for Japan.
Instead, they had to make do with Uchida's solitary winner. Despite Japan's dominance throughout the match, they didn't deserve much more than to win by a single goal.
Indeed, Japan survived a late scare when Marios Stylianou missed an easy chance to equalize for Cyprus on 85 minutes.
Zaccheroni would be forgiven if he were disappointed in the way his team approached the contest and turned out the result. This was supposed to be a dress rehearsal and a morale-boosting win.
A Strong Squad Leaves Much to Be Desired
Look at Japan's squad for the World Cup, and you see quality, youth and experience scattered across the entire 23-man roster.
From Kawashima in goal all the way up to Shinji Okazaki up front, from Yuto Nagatomo at full-back to Shinji Kagawa in attacking midfield—Zaccheroni's team oozes class from front to back, and on paper alone they should have a strong chance of making it out of the group stages.
Which makes Tuesday's drab one-goal win all the more frustrating and anticlimactic. With the squad that they have, Japan should be looking to make a statement on the international scene. A rout over Cyprus would've gone a long way toward striking fear into their opponents' hearts.
Instead, they will need to look at their two final friendlies to work on getting their attack to jell and produce the goods.
Benchmarking Their Cypriot Opponents
According to the FIFA world rankings, as of May 8, Japan are the second-highest-ranked team in Asia, with their No. 47 ranking a strong endorsement of their strength and recent performances.
By contrast, Cyprus are ranked 130th, below even the likes of Afghanistan and Malta, which goes to show just how disappointing a single-goal win was on Tuesday.
Japan's group-stage rivals are far superior opposition compared to Cyprus: Cote d'Ivoire are 21st in the world, while Greece and Colombia are 10th and fifth, respectively. They will pose a much bigger threat to Japan's World Cup hopes.
It doesn't help that Japan's remaining friendlies ahead of the tournament are against Costa Rica and Zambia, who are ranked 34th and 79th, respectively.
More to Come for the Samurai Blue
With this in mind, there is still much to do for Japan yet.
They must move on quickly toward getting themselves ready for their upcoming friendlies and trying to boost their overall confidence with tidy and composed wins over Costa Rica and Zambia.
Given that their group-stage opponents are so strong, they need to get their defence set up and their attack firing on all cylinders going into the World Cup.
Considering Japan were by far the dominant side against Cyprus, perhaps Zaccheroni's most immediate objective in the remaining weeks is to get his star-studded squad to produce reliable output.
If that happens, maybe they could yet spring a few surprises in June.