January 14 – Tournament favourites Japan overcame a scare and a half of topsy-turvy football to defeat Vietnam 4-2 with a brace from Takumi Minamino.
For 85 minutes, Vietnam were outstanding and remained in striking distance of their illustrious opponents, but Ayase Ueda’s late strike wrapped up Japan’s victory after a scintillating first stanza that showcased the strength and depth of the Asian game.
The Vietnamese applied tactical acumen, organisation and lethal finishing to give the Japanese a run for their money in a five-goal first half.
After just ten minutes, the tournament favourites were up and running when Minamino slotted home the rebound from Yukinari Sugawara’s attempt. Their first foray into enemy territory was a showcase for their efficiency. It seemed as though they had swiftly quashed any aspirations Vietnam entertained of getting a result out of the match.
The Vietnamese were keen to follow in the footsteps of both Syria and Tajikistan whose dogged performances earned them a point against heavyweights, but taking on the four-time champions represented nothing less than a litmus test for the South East Asian side, who were knocked out of the Asian Cup by the Samurai Blue four years ago in the quarter-finals.
Back then they didn’t score, but in Doha, they were level within six minutes following a fabulous header by Nguyen Dình Bac, who leaned back at the near post to steer a looping header over stranded goalkeeper Zion Suzuki. It was a sign of things to come.
The Sint-Truiden number one didn’t cover himself in glory either when the Vietnamese took an unlikely lead in the 33rd minute. Lacking any kind of assurance, Suzuki fumbled a towering header, gift-wrapping a tap-in for Pham Tuan Hai. Suddenly, Vietnam were 2-1 ahead, a reward for their overall excellence.
On the eve of the match, Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu said that it was a matter of striking a balance between aggression and caution, but trailing to Vietnam had not been part of the script.
The Japanese had an hour to make amendments and on the stroke of half-time, Japan’s superstars came to the rescue with Liverpool’s Wataru Endo setting up Minamino who drew level with a composed finish, having been given a split-second of space by Vietnam’s five-man defense.
It was not the end just yet of a dramatic, enthralling first half. Holding off three defenders and with great technique to shift the ball into space before making perfect contact, Keito Nakamura let fly a wonderful strike that found the top right corner. It was the denouement of the tournament’s best half.
Those heights were not hit again after the restart, the tempo more steady and the Japanese happy to be in the lead. Moriyasu’s team controlled the match and Minamino had a chance to complete his hat-trick in the 69th minute, but his meek attempt didn’t trouble the Vietnamese stopper.
Vietnam remained within striking distance to draw for much of the second half, but Ueda’s goal ensured three points and a winning start for Japan, whose impressive goalscoring streak continues with 49 goals from their last eleven matches. However, the Japanese have been warned: if they want a fifth Asian crown, they will have to be on their game from start to finish.
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