CONCACAF got the better of the Asian Football Federation in Hannover as Mexico topped Japan 2-1 despite falling behind to a goal from Atsushi Yanagisawa.
The Japanese were on a high having become the Dominoqq first nation to have qualified for Germany 2006 barely a week ago and they included their three Italian-based players in their starting line-up: Shunsuke Nakamura, Yanagisawa and talisman Hidetoshi Nakata.
Mexico, coached by Argentinian Ricardo La Volpe and missing a number of key players, took the game to their opponents from the whistle with Jaime Lozano crossing for Jose Fonseca to nod narrowly over the bar.
Both teams soon settled into a relaxed-tempo chess game in midfield so it was a surprise when the Japanese grabbed a twelfth-minute lead thanks to Akira Kaji’s speedy break down the right wing. His whipped cross found an onrushing Atsushi Yanagisawa muscling between the two Mexican centre-backs before deftly sending the ball spinning past Oswaldo Sanchez into the corner of the net.
The Japanese were looking the more adventurous during the first half-hour with Nakata’s spectacualr attempt at a bicycle kick after twenty-four minutes a sign of their growing confidence.
Three minutes later however Mexico hit back when a Pavel Pardo free kick deep on the right found an unmarked Jared Borgetti whose point-blank header was saved by an alert Yoshikatsu Kawagushi. On the half hour mark Ricardo Osorio advanced and and let rip from twenty yards to remind Japan they were still in the game with an hour left to play.
Mitsuo Osagawara barked instructions at goalscorer Yanagisawa as Japan’s coach Zico pounded animatedly around the technical area, while La Volpe remained seated, wrapped in his thoughts.
The Argentine’s decorum was shattered however after thirty-nine minutes when his number seven Zinha conjured up a goal of sublime quality.
Receiving the ball in space twenty-five yards out, the Toluca midfielder looked up before launching a missile that rose into the net via the postage stamp leaving Kawaguchi helpless and the stadium in awe.
Akira Kaji tried to copy him at the other end three minutes later but his shot flew over the bar.
In the closing minutes of the first half Zinha turned up the pressure, sending in two dangerous crosses, the first mis-hit by Lozano and the second fired wide by Salvador Carmona.
Picking up where they had left off at the break, Mexico forced a corner straight after the restart but when Pardo’s kick arrived at Carmona’s feet he blazed over the bar.
Two further Mexican chances followed, Luis Perez shooting wide after good work from Pardo and Borgetti seeing one of his trademark towering headers strike an upright from a Zinha cross.
In response Zico pulled off Nakamura for Junichi Inamoto but the Mexicans deservedly stole the lead after sixty-four minutes.
Borgetti picked up the ball on the left and fed the lively Perez who teased Makoto Tanaka before crossing deep for Juan Franciso Fonseca to to rise between the twin towers of Alex and Takayuki Chano to force a header past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to make it 2-1.
Zico then gambled by throwing on two more attackers in Masashi Oguro and Keiji Tamada but to little avail. Borgetti had the ball in the net after seventy minutes but a late flag disallowed the goal.
Japan’s best remaining chance came with ten minutes remaining. Kaji again raided up the right flank and crossed into the box. Yanagisawa cleverly lost his marker but his flicked header sailed too high to give him his second goal.
With Nakata dropping further back and Inamoto relieving him of his midfield duties it seemed the wind had gone out of the blue shirts’ sails, Kaji’s booking for restraining Borgetti at the end of the match a symptom of their frustration.
Having begun encouragingly, Japan surrendered their lead and allowed Mexico and particularly their man of the match Zinha to haul themselves back into a game they were losing.
After the game Zico accepted the loss: “We did not expect a defeat today but Mexico played well”, he told reporters. “We had chances but we did not convert them but that happens in football and I am calm about this”.
Pinning down his side’s weakness in the air he commented: “We are going to have to work hard to correct that. Mexico played in a way we were unable to neutralise. The balls in the air we simply could not control and it was difficult for our goalkeeper.”
“We let them score that second goal and it gave them a second wind but the result could have been very different when it was 1-0”, he said.
With Greece up next the Japanese will be eager to win and cancel the order for wooden spoons to Tokyo.