The Samurai Blue, again without Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo, struggled to snatch a point in their Asian 2014 World Cup qualifierJapan’s campaign toward a seat to the 2014 World Cup met a stumbling block, as the Samurai Blue were held 1-1 by a well-organised Uzbekistan on Tuesday.
With 35-degree temperatures at kick-off and just 12% humidity, Japan fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation that surprisingly included Leicester City midfielder Yuki Abe, celebrating his 30th birthday with his first start under manager Alberto Zaccheroni. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan went with their classic 4-4-2.
After hitting the post, the hosts took the lead already in the 8th minute. A short corner led to a cross that eventually settled in front of the goal before Server Djeparov slotted the ball past Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
From then on Japan continued to press, mostly in the form of Hasebe and Lee, whose best chance to score in the 45th minute struck the left post.
Still, the Samurai Blue seemed lost in attack without star forward Keisuke Honda to anchor the team and provide leadership, and numerous times were unable to successfully hold possession from the midfield to the penalty area.
The White Wolves of Uzbekistan, meanwhile, were poised and confident as they were able to bewilder the visiting defence with their side changes and made numerous forays into Japan’s final third on the counter-attack.
Zaccheroni, sensing the need to stimulate his team, sent on Hiroshi Kiyotake for the ineffective Abe at half-time. The teams exchanged attacks and ultimately Japan pulled even in the 64th minute when a diving Okazaki headed in Atsudo Uchida’s cross.
Mike Havenaar came on for Lee, and Japan pressed the attack with a new-found confidence. Uzbekistan provided a scare in the 67th minute when Kawashima made a diving save in a one-on-one against Djeparov.
Despite Japan’s offensive-minded substitutions, Uzbekistan had the larger number of counter-attacks as the game came to a close. But tenacious defending by the visitors allowed them to preserve the 1-1 scoreline and leave Tashkent with a point for their efforts.
Zaccheroni preserved his unbeaten record, but questions will surely arise as to how Asia’s most powerful team will continue without their leader and star player Honda.
Japan and Uzbekistan now share the lead in Asia’s Group C with four points each after two games, followed by North Korea with three.