The sight of Kaoru Mitoma coming in as a substitute against Bahrain must have thrilled the Japan fans. The Brighton winger made a much-awaited Asian Cup appearance in Samurai Blue’s 3-1 win at the Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday, which sent the four-time champions cruising into quarter-finals against Iran on Saturday.
Goals from Ritsu Doan, Takefusa Kubo and Ayase Ueda was enough for Japan to ease past Bahrain, who were beneficiaries of an own goal from error-prone goalkeeper Zion Suzuki but lacked the bite to trouble their East Asian rivals.
Against Bahrain, Japan never seemed at risk of falling victim to an upset but it wasn’t a standout performance that was expected of them. There was wobble midway through the second half that would have concerned Hajime Moriyasu but a 20-minute sparkling cameo by Mitoma must have brought relief to the coach.
Moriyasu took a gamble when he brought Mitoma to Qatar, but early signs suggest that he was right in trusting the 26-year-old – who had injured his ankle on December 21 playing for Brighton against Crystal Palace in the Premier League – to get fit for the knockout stages.
From his introduction in the 68th minute, Mitoma troubled Bahrain defenders with his guile and pace to show why he is now one of the Premier League’s most-exciting attackers. There was a moment of magic in the 84th minute when he skipped past two defenders and perfectly set up for Takuma Asano to make it 4-1, but the VfL Bochum forward slipped in the box with only goalkeeper Ebrahim Lutfalla to beat.
With Mitoma operating at left wing, Japan were constant threat in the box and is the man Moriyasu will hope can lift his team’s performance and guide them to record fifth Asian title.
Captain Wataru Endo though warned that Japan’s rivals will ‘exploit’ their weaknesses, with Iran waiting for them in the quarter-finals at the Education City Stadium on Saturday.
Midfielder Endo, who has been impressive for Premier League leaders Liverpool this season, felt their quarter-final opponents might not be as forgiving as toothless Bahrain.
“In football, teams are analysing you and trying to find out where there are gaps that they can exploit,” he said. “Teams have looked at us at the tournament so far and it’s not easy to defend against. It’s important that we don’t let our concentration drop for the full 90 minutes.”
The pre-tournament favourites are yet to keep a clean sheet in four games in Qatar, with goalkeeper Suzuki looking vulnerable in all the matches. Against Bahrain, the 21-year-old misjudged a punch before getting tangled up with Ueda and fumbling the ball over the line.
Moriyasu, though, blamed the goal on a lack of communication. “It wasn’t all perfect and next we will play Iran. They have a lot of talent up front and we will have to play better than today,” he said. “We have to reflect on the goal we conceded.”
Bahrain bowed out of the tournament after winning Group E ahead of South Korea. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi acknowledged that “Japan were better than us tactically and physically”.
“Japan have had the same coach for five years and every substitute they brought on had the same level of quality,” said Pizzi, who won the 2016 Copa America with Chile.
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