Holders Japan cruised to a 4-0 win over Palestine in their Asian Cup opener yesterday, setting up the deckchairs in the second half with the job already done.
The Blue Samurai, who won the tournament for a record fourth time in 2011, needed only eight minutes to take the lead against a nervy Palestine team making their first appearance in Asia’s showcase competition.
Yasuhito Endo, making his 149th appearance for Japan, rifled a shot into the bottom corner, goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh going down in installments to gift the J-League Player of the Year his 15th international goal.
Shinji Okazaki, who has been in a rich vein of form for German side FSV Mainz 05, scored with a poacher’s strike in the 25th minute, reacting with razor-sharp reflexes to head in a volley from Shinji Kagawa which looked to be fizzing wide.
Keisuke Honda, Japan’s bleach-blond cult hero, then stroked home a penalty just before halftime, before defender Maya Yoshida nodded in a fourth as the floodgates threatened to burst open in blustery Newcastle.
“People assume Japan are vastly superior to Palestine, but in modern football it’s not easy to win by four goals,” Japan coach Javier Aguirre told reporters. “Palestine fought hard, they’re battlers. We didn’t play a perfect game, but I’ve got to be happy with four goals. Their ’keeper also made some good saves.”
Aguirre, currently embroiled in a match-fixing scandal linked to his time as manager of Spanish side Real Zaragoza in 2011, opted to save legs for his side’s next two Group D games against Iraq and Jordan as the champions eased off the gas in the latter stages.
Palestine, whose preparations for tournaments are invariably disrupted by political turmoil in their war-torn homeland, were barely given a sniff by a well-drilled Japan defense marshaled by Southampton centerback Yoshida.
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who had little to do during the 90 minutes, said: “The first game was always going to be difficult, but we scored an early goal which made it easier.”
“We are confident as we won the title last time and we’ve gained experience in the last four years. We’re very calm,” he said.
Aguirre was less relaxed, bellowing at his players from the touchline as their concentration levels dropped off significantly toward the end of the game.
The Mexican, whose honeymoon period came to an abrupt end after a poor run of performances, is under intense pressure to lift the trophy following Japan’s FIFA World Cup flop last year under Alberto Zaccheroni.
“The coach is a good motivator,” Man of the Match Okazaki said after scoring his 41st goal in 85 appearances for Japan. “It was important to get some momentum and to boost confidence after what happened at the World Cup.”
The game was not a complete washout for Palestine forward Mahmoud Dhadha, though, after he exchanged shirts with AC Milan’s Honda.
“I got to swap jerseys with Honda,” he beamed. “He was a gentleman and I will be keeping it.”
“We can’t make the same kind of mistakes against the other teams in the group. I hope we can do better and make everyone in Palestine proud of us,” Dhadha added.
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