Offshore drilling, Asia: at Japan 1, Iraq 0

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Man of the Match: If your standard is judging a player against the responsibilities of his postion, Yuto Nagatomo was the best man on the field. The Japan left back’s runs through Iraq’s right flank were key to maintaining the Samurai Blue’s dominance of possession. Consistently able to beat whomever tried to mark him, Nagatomo took advantage of a deep-sitting Iraq defense to leave space behind his runs, room Japan used to make their 25th minute goal stand up.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Japan came into the match with a five point lead in the teams’ World Cup qualifying group, though Japan had played one match more than Iraq and Australia (tied for second with two points). Still, the defending confederation champions’ +9 goal difference through three rounds hints they are the class of the group.
  • Iraq, on the other hand, still had questions to answer. They’d drawn their first two group matches (at Jordan and hosting Oman).  Today, their first match against one of the group’s top two, should have provided a hint as to whether the Iraqis can qualify for the first World Cup since 1986.
  • At the onset, it was clear Japan was going to control the match. Iraq rarely had the ball in the first four minutes, though an early corner saw the visitors create the first serous scoring chance.
  • By in large, that’s how the first 15 minutes played out. Japan dominated possession, but Iraq had enough energy to force corner kicks fro transition the few times they got control of the ball. After 10 minutes, Iraq had already forced three corner kicks.
  • Slowly Japan started taking more control of the match, with Iraq often setting up a line of six at the back once their wide midfielders had tracked back. But the approach wasn’t as stoic as it sounds. Tight man marking compelled Iraq’s players away from their line.
  • Once Japan got used to Iraq’s approach, however, they were able to pull their marks out of position, creating space within the lines or, in the case of Nagatomo, pull even more defenders back, creating tons of room to use in front of the line.
  • In the 25th minute, Japan broke through off a throw in. Yuichi Komano found Shinji Okazawa unmarked behind the left side of Iraq’s defense. Running onto a throw bouncing toward the six-yard box, Okazama put a cross in for Ryoichi Maeda, who headed home the first goal.
  • With the lead, Japan exerted even more control of the match. At halftime, the Japanese had held 64 percent of the possession. Near the hour mark, they had forced 10 corner kicks for Iraq’s five.
  • In so many matches, possession fails to tell the story, but on Tuesday, it did. Iraq seemed to want to sit deep, stay compact, and pick up players in the final third. Japan’s defenders were able to carry the ball to the center line before meeting any resistance. Iraq was prepared to play without the ball, but once Japan scored an early goal, that plan became their undoing.
  • By the 70th minute, Japan was consistently cracking the right side of Iraq’s defense, and while it wasn’t leading to goals (or many clear scoring chances), Nagatomo’s runs left the defense disorganized, needing to regroup before attempting to regain the ball. Throughout the second half, Japan’s possession number threatened 66 percent.
  • With the win, Japan move to 10 points through four games in Asia’s Group B. With Australia facing a tough match in Jordan, Japan may have strengthened their stranglehold on a spot in Brazil 2014.
  • Moreover, Japan continues to show their play at South Africa 2010 wasn’t a momentary threat. Within these types of performances you see the quality and maturity that makes the Japanese one of the more underrated teams in the world. They’re ranked 23rd by FIFA, but it’s difficult to name more than a handful of nations that are clearly playing better than Japan.
  • As for Iraq, they’re still a question mark. Zico’s approach meant they were unlikely to fare well if they fell behind, but until that point, Iraq were generating just as many chances as Japan. While the strategy was always likely to fail, Iraq’s players showed  they can threaten Japan, something that could yield results when the teams meet again on June 11.