Japan struggled past understrength Côte d'Ivoire 1-0 Saturday, giving a morale boost to their comeback FIFA World Cup ™ qualifying campaign. Nagoya striker Keiji Tamada volleyed home a left cross from Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe on the break in the 21st minute, in a sliding left-foot shot through goalkeeper Aristide Benoit Zogbo's legs.
Japan are to meet Paraguay in Saitama on Tuesday in the final match of the three-nation Kirin Cup. Ivory Coast and Paraguay drew 1-1 in Yokohama on Wednesday.
"We did pretty well in the first half. But our legs stalled in the second half, leaving us much on the defensive. Our men managed to hold on to the last minute," Japan coach Takeshi Okada said.
Côte d'Ivoire's new coach Vahid Halilhodzic, a Bosnian, said: "Our players were tired but they made efforts to play well. We controlled the ball in the second half. We had chances but could not score goals."
Okada fielded Europe-based players for the first time since taking over from Ivica Osim last December. Midfielder Daisuke Matsui, who has just signed with St Etienne from Le Mans, and Hasebe gelled well with J-League stars.
Okada is expected to use Shunsuke Nakamura against Paraguay as the playmaker returned home Saturday after lifting his third straight Scottish Premier League title with Celtic.
A rainy affair
Playing in a driving rain at the Toyota Stadium, Japan all but opened the scoring in the sixth minute when former Mallorca striker Yoshito Okubo slapped wide a cross from FC Tokyo defender Yuto Nagatomo.
The Big Elephants, playing without Chelsea forwards Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou who saw their side crash to Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final on Wednesday, could not convert three free kicks and a corner in the first half.
Japan's offensive slowed down with erratic pass work and lacked creativity after the interval. But Côte d'Ivoire squandered a few scoring chances including Stuttgart defender Etienne Boka's 30-metre shot which was punched away in a diving save by Japanese goalkeeper Seigo Narasaki on the hour mark.
Japan, hoping for their fourth appearance in a FIFA World Cup finals, are rebuilding after a shock 1-0 away defeat to unfancied Bahrain on March 26 in the qualifying round. The result left Bahrain on top of the AFC Group 2 table with two wins and six points, ahead of Japan and Oman on three points and winless Thailand.