SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - Japan’s FA stunned the country’s football community by sacking national team head coach Vahid Halilhodzic two months before the World Cup but Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Colombia in their group opener appears to have vindicated the shock decision.
Halilhodzic had led the side to their sixth consecutive World Cup finals but concerns about the direction the team was going prompted the JFA to replace him with Akira Nishino, giving the new coach 71 days to prepare the side for Russia.
After two friendly defeats to start Nishino’s reign, Japan’s chances of progressing from a tough Group H looked bleak but their win in Saransk, which came after Colombia had a man sent off in the third minute, has given them hope.
Nishino appeared to find a system that worked in Japan’s final friendly before the World Cup, a 4-2 victory over Paraguay, and he stuck with that on Tuesday.
While Japan’s task was made easier by Carlos Sanchez’s red card, Nishino got his tactics spot on, with an energetic pressing game and fluid link-up play from midfielders Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui.
Kagawa opened the scoring from the penalty spot and was busy throughout and Yuya Osako, favoured ahead of Japan’s all-time leading scorer Shinji Okazaki up front, repaid his manager’s faith with the winning goal and a man of the match performance.
Halilhodzic had also been criticized for failing to get the best out of senior players such as Kagawa and Keisuke Honda but both had big parts to play on Tuesday, with Honda providing the cross for Osako’s winner.
“I tried to man the midfield with players who can take the initiative,” said Nishino after the win over Colombia, who had thumped the Japanese 4-1 four years ago in Brazil.
“We need to be able to play to our full, rather than be reactive to the opposition strengths. If we are always defensive, the chance of victory is going to recede and we want to pursue victory.”
Japan face Senegal in Yekaterinburg on June 24 in their second Group H game as they try to secure a third trip to the last 16, the furthest they have got at a World Cup.
Editing by Peter Rutherford