Japan coach Takeshi Okada is holding tight to his dream of a top-four finish in next year's FIFA World Cup™ after a roller-coaster European tour.
"This team still has room to improve and has time. I believe we will be ready for the World Cup," Okada said after Japan rallied from behind to beat African qualifiers Ghana 4-3 in a friendly in the Netherlands on Wednesday. Four days earlier, the former Asian champions were beaten 3-0 by the Netherlands when they yielded all the goals to the physically stronger hosts in the final 21 minutes.
After that loss, Okada was asked about the difference in strength between the Dutch side, ranked third in the world, and Japan. "I knew that there was such a gap as what we saw. But there can be many stories concerning the gap," Okada said. "It is fully possible that we can write a different story from today's."
Against Ghana, Japan squandered several early chances as the West Africans excelled in speed and power while Japan relied on its midfield prowess. Ghana, who became the first African country to qualify for the FIFA World Cup with a 2-0 home win over Sudan on Sunday, opened the scoring through Rennes striker Asamoah Gyan's 31st-minute penalty.
The Black Stars went ahead on 47 minutes as Gyan latched onto a long kick from goalkeeper William Amamoo and shook off Japan centre back Yuji Nakazawa. Kengo Nakamura pulled one back for Japan on 53 minutes. But Mathew Amoah got a long through pass in the box and slotted in to put Ghana ahead 3-1.
However, a travel-weary Ghana ran out of steam and on 78 minutes Japan launched a five-minute, three-goal rampage through Keji Tamada, Shinji Okazaki and Rennes midfielder Junichi Inamoto. Okada said his squad, featuring Espanyol star Shunsuke Nakamura, should have converted their first-half chances and the defenders needed to tighten up at the back.
The Nikkan Gendai tabloid questioned Okada's heavy reliance on Nakamura and mocked his stated FIFA World Cup goal. "To everybody else, it sounds like nothing but hot air."
Japan finished second behind Australia in Asia's Group A to qualify for their fourth straight World Cup finals. Their best finish was a last-16 spot on home turf in 2002.