Yokohama – There would have been plenty to cheer about on Thursday night in Yokohama — if fans were allowed to cheer.
Instead, the 8,356 in attendance at Nissan Stadium — all masked and silent during play under guidelines intended to prevent coronavirus infections — had to make do with applause as the Samurai Blue defeated archrival South Korea 3-0, with Miki Yamane, Daichi Kamada and Wataru Endo scoring in Japan’s first home game since November 2019.
The friendly was the first encounter between the two countries’ senior national teams in 10 years, although their domestic squads have clashed four times in the biennial East Asian championships. Captain Maya Yoshida was also on the pitch for that August 2011 game in Sapporo, which was also a 3-0 win for Japan.
“I’m glad we could get another 3-0 win,” Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “But the team has changed from 10 years ago, and this squad has worked hard in difficult conditions in order to get a win and bring some joy to our fans.”
Japan did well to maintain possession and deny the Koreans any attacking chances in the opening minutes, and Wataru Endo nearly opened the scoring in the 10th minute when his header bounced off the crossbar.
Instead it was Yamane, the Kawasaki Frontale right back and Samurai Blue debutant, whose shot from inside the penalty area ricocheted off the bottom of the bar and over the line after Yuya Osako deflected a Korean clearance attempt in his direction.
Japan’s lead doubled in the 27th minute when Kamada, who’s notched an impressive four goals and 12 assists for Germany’s Frankfurt this season, broke free into the penalty area on a counter and whipped a grounder inside the left post.
“When I get the ball at Frankfurt I pass it to a faster player, but the national team is a different team and I thought it would be better to finish the chance myself,” Kamada said. “All of us who play in Europe are familiar with that sort of counterattack.
“I felt like I had a lot of options, if someone had been inside I might have set the ball up to Junya (Ito) for a cross, but based on how their defenders were playing I thought I had a chance to go in (and take the shot).”
South Korea found more opportunities in the second half, but Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda was rarely troubled until the 62st minute when he had to punch out Lee Dong-jun’s strong attempt from outside the area and clear another series of attempts that followed in quick succession.
The visitors showed some signs of life as the clock ticked down but Japan took an unassailable 3-0 lead in the 83rd minute when an unmarked Endo, considered among Japan’s top players in Europe at the moment, headed in Ataru Esaka’s corner kick.
The poor performance was sure to put South Korea manager Paulo Bento under pressure, though he argued that his team’s performance was limited due to the inability of many of his top overseas players to come to Japan.
“When this game was arranged, it was done in a certain context. But the situation regarding the match changed, and we were unable to play a good game,” Bento said. “Of course not having access to all of our players has a big effect on our style. The circumstances are difficult, but I don’t think I can say that we would have won with our Europe-based players.
“The players did their best and I have to take responsibility for the loss. We weren’t able to do what we wanted, and I have to praise our opponents. They deserved the win.”
Thursday’s game was the first of four internationals Japan will host over the next week as the country looks to prove that it can safely host the troubled Tokyo Olympics. Players have trained inside a “bubble” established by the Japan Football Association and have only traveled between their lodgings and the stadium.
Within Japan’s squad, domestic and overseas-based players have been held to strict physical distancing protocols outside of training, including separate seating at team meetings and hotel rooms on different floors.
“It’s been incredibly stressful for the players, but they didn’t complain and prepared well for today,” Moriyasu said. “In these difficult times, I hope people were able to watch this game and forget their struggles for a little while.
“I hope that the efforts of the players can provide everyone with some hope.”
Moriyasu’s squad will next face Mongolia on Tuesday, in a World Cup qualifier held behind closed doors in Chiba.
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