Japan 0-0 Singapore: Did Stange get his tactics spot on?
Star performer: Izwan Mahbud (SIN)
Izwan Mahbud is one of the five Singaporean players who FFT tips to break into the #FFTAsia50 one day. Click here to find out who else in Monday night's Singapore team stand a similar chance one day.
Izwan Mahbud had, by his own admission, the performance of his life, putting on an inspired display between the posts. He made his first save after 12 minutes, tipping a Shinji Kagawa effort round the post, and despite the 23 shots that Japan rained down over 95 minutes, the 24-year-old custodian looked unbeatable.
There were certainly moments when luck gave him a helping hand – several follow-up efforts rebounded directly into his grateful grasp, while Tomoaki Makino’s header and Keisuke Honda’s free-kick struck the post and bar respectively – but Singapore’s shot-stopper put on enough of a show with his gloves to be deserving of the accolades pouring in.
Stops from Shinji Okazaki and Honda in the second period are the pick of the bunch, but a substantial highlights package could be made from all his stops throughout the game.
His coach Bernd Stange half-joked that offers from Japanese clubs would be pouring in for the Lions’ hero after Tuesday’s display, and the man himself – faced by a swarm of stunned Japanese journalists post-match – admitted that he would be open to such a challenge, claiming that he wants to “step out of his comfort zone”. Based on that performance, some clubs may be tempted to take a punt.
Could do better: Shinji Kagawa (JPN)
That Kagawa can do better is the world’s poorest-guarded secret by now.
The 26-year-old is firmly established as one of Japan’s A-list stars, but in truth he hasn’t made a telling contribution to the national team for longer than most following the Samurai Blue care to remember.
Kagawa made a stunning rise from J2 League side Cerezo Osaka to consecutive Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund in 2011 and 2012 before earning a move to English giant Manchester United.
Things didn’t go as well as he and Japan’s fans had hoped at Old Trafford though, and he made his way back to Westfalenstadion with his tail between his legs last summer.
It would appear that it is stuck there, and his performances for at least the past two years for Japan have not been befitting of one of the most technically gifted players the Land of the Rising Sun has produced.
This game was the latest in a long line of ineffective and underwhelming displays in a Japan shirt. As each pass, shot, and dribble failed on Monday, his head dropped lower and lower.
A needless handball when in acres of space in midfield in first-half injury time summed up his listless performance. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic finally lost patience in the 61st minute, substituting him with Yuya Osako as Japan desperately searched for the breakthrough that never came.
When Honda’s free-kick thundered off the crossbar in the 73rd minute, the 57,533 fans packed into Saitama Stadium must have realised that it wasn’t going to be the home side’s day.
Makino had hit the post from a free header just three minutes earlier, and as Honda’s effort cannoned away to safety the Lions’ players were visibly reinvigorated. A higher force was ensuring even the shots Izwan wasn’t able to repel weren’t going to cross their line.
That’s not to say that the visitors left the result in the hands of fate, though. Every man in a red shirt left everything he had out on the field, with Baihakki Khaizan and Nazrul Nazari especially impressive as they flung their bodies in the way of shots, crosses and Japan’s players to help the cause.
Lions boss Stange understandably set his team up with the aim of stifling Japan and ensuring their creative players weren’t given the time or space to pick holes in Singapore’s defence.
Baihakki already gave a clear demonstration of his team’s intentions in the 5th minute, clattering into consecutive challenges in midfield and leaving a stunned Kagawa unceremoniously dumped on the turf.
However, that’s not to say that the away side were overly aggressive or negative - there was something heartening about seeing the team originally perceived as underdogs defending with organisation, spirit and commitment.
The disciplined back-four and screening midfielders never wavered in their duties, forcing Japan to grow increasingly frustrated as the minutes ticked by in a game they were expected to win by a hatful of goals.
Halilhodzic introduced Osako and then Genki Haraguchi in an effort to address the poor decision-making and wayward shooting plaguing his side, Japan eventually completing the final half hour of the match with five forwards on the field.
The Bosnian’s plan nevertheless backfired as the gap between midfield and attack increased dramatically, with his striker’s poorly-defined roles simply leaving them getting into each other's’ way.
Players from both sides were keen to stress that their chances of progressing from Group E would not be determined by the outcome of this match.
However, it would be hard to see it having anything other than a positive impact on Singapore. They may have enjoyed their share of fortune, while it’s uncertain whether they’ll be able to maintain Monday’s level of performance over the entirety of their campaign.
But the Lions are now aware of what they are capable of. Having earned a point away to the strongest team in the group means it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they might do the same – or even better – in September’s trip to face Syria.
For Japan, this result could prove a blessing in disguise if they recognise their shortcomings and address them. The players often trot out the ‘no easy games’ maxim, but there is the lingering sensation that they underestimated their opponents this time.
The Samurai blue now have no more margin for error in qualification, and must ensure they earn and keep their tag as favourites with results to match from here on.
Main image: Football Association of Singapore