Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said criticism of his team at the Asian Cup was “a sign of respect” as they prepare to face Bahrain in the last 16 today.
Japan have struggled to live up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites in Qatar and went through as Group D runners-up after a shock defeat to Iraq. Moriyasu’s side beat Germany and Spain at the 2022 World Cup and went into the Asian Cup on the back of a run of nine straight wins in which they scored 39 goals.
The coach said he was glad they were being held to high standards as they gear up to face a Bahrain side that topped Group E ahead of South Korea. The winner will face Iran or Syria in the quarter-finals.
“It feels like a sign of respect when people say we have been struggling because they expect us to play well, so I’m happy to hear that,” said Moriyasu. “All of the teams at the Asian Cup have a lot of quality and we have had difficult games because they are getting better.”
Japan conceded at least one goal in all three of their group games, with inexperienced goalkeeper Zion Suzuki at fault on more than one occasion. Moriyasu said Japan would learn from their defensive mistakes but would have “no sense of uneasiness” as they begin the knockout stage.
Moriyasu’s side came into the tournament in a rich vein of form having won nine matches in a row – including defeating Germany 4-1 in Wolfsburg in September – scoring 39 goals in the process to build on their impressive performances at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
But, after the loss to Iraq and conceding five goals so far at the Asian Cup, doubts have been raised over their ability to sustain a challenge for a record-extending fifth continental crown. “We have to learn from our mistakes in the first three games but that doesn’t mean we have any worries about our defence for tomorrow’s match,” said Moriyasu. “Bahrain are a strong side so we have to be careful of their attacking play, but I’m confident my players will play up to 100 percent of their potential. Bahrain are a very talented side. They have individual talents, but also they can work as a team, as a unit. They are strong as a team, they can not only counterattack but they have also talented players up front who can play good football.”
Bahrain lost their opening game, to South Korea, but qualified from their group in first place after beating Malaysia and Jordan. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Japan being labelled favourites “could play into our hands” and vowed to exploit their weaknesses.
“It will be a very tough match but I have full confidence in my players and we are very optimistic that we can win,” said Pizzi, who lifted the Copa America with Chile in 2016. “Of course optimism and enthusiasm will help us compete and help us play every game as if it is a final.”
The return of Czech Republic-based striker Abdulla Yusuf against the Jordanians, after starting the first two games on the bench, bolstered Pizzi’s side and the Argentinian could look for the towering forward again to cause problems for Japan’s backline.
“Japan are a tough team with a lot of strengths but they have weaknesses that we need to exploit in order to be able to come out on top,” said Pizzi. “Hopefully we will be able to implement our philosophy. We learned a few lessons from the game against South Korea and before the tournament we also played Australia (losing 2-0). When you compete against big national teams this makes the team stronger collectively and individually. Unfortunately the results of these two matches were not up to our expectations but we still felt comfortable because the level was high and it reassured us that we can compete against anybody.”