Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda came off the bench to score quickfire goals as Japan beat Tunisia 2-0 on Friday in their first outing under new coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
The firebrand Franco-Bosnian wore a face like thunder as he prowled the touchline in a pinstripe suit gesticulating furiously as Japan wasted several first-half chances, with debutant Kengo Kawamata coming closest by heading against the bar after 20 minutes.
Honda and Shinji Kagawa were introduced on the hour mark, quickly followed by Okazaki, and all three made an impact as the Blue Samurai blew out the cobwebs after their Asian Cup flop in January.
Honda crossed for Okazaki to head home at the far post on 78 minutes and Japan’s blond cult hero stabbed home from close range five minutes later after Kagawa had struck panic into Tunisia’s defence.
“I’m delighted,” said Halilhodzic, who recently replaced Javier Aguirre after the Mexican’s sacking amid allegations of match-fixing dating back to a previous tenure in Spain.
“We played very well. Honda and Kagawa have shown that they have the ability to change games. We’ve taken a big step with this victory but I still want to explore new options.”
The 62-year-old Halilhodzic, who led Algeria to the knockout stages of last year’s World Cup in Brazil, made sweeping changes for his first game in Oita, western Japan, but the arrival of Honda and Kagawa gave the home side an instant lift.
Former Bayern Munich loanee Takashi Usami almost marked his debut with a goal just before the final whistle, hitting the post with a curling effort, but Halilhodzic will have a clearer idea of his best side before the 2018 Asian World Cup qualifiers begin in June.
Former Yugoslavia striker Halilhodzic, who has promised to restore Japan’s shattered confidence, will have another opportunity to tinker when his side face Uzbekistan in Tokyo on Tuesday.
“The focus is on the World Cup qualifiers,” he said. “We have another game in a few days and another chance to look at different players.”
Japan exited the 2014 World Cup with barely a whimper under Italian Alberto Zaccheroni before theirAsian Cup defence ended in an embarrassing quarter-final defeat to the United Arab Emirates on penalties.
Tunisia boss Georges Leekens, meanwhile, told reporters: “The jet lag took its toll on us in the second half but you saw the quality Japan had in the players they brought off the bench. That turned the game.” – Agence France-Presse