Japan experiment without Kagawa, Okazaki at East Asian Championship
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has set his sights on another two wins in the remaining matches at the East Asian Championship, despite questioning the quality of the squad at his disposal for this week's four-team competition.
The Japanese kicked off their campaign with a late and fortuitous 1-0 win over North Korea on Saturday evening when a deflected injury time strike from Yosuke Ideguchi saw off Jorn Andersen's determined side at Ajinomoto Stadium.
That win put the Japanese on top of the early standings following a 2-2 draw between China and South Korea earlier in the day. But Halilhodzic is planning to make changes to his lineup for Tuesday's meeting with Marcello Lippi's China.
"If you ask me if this is the best squad, I would have to say no," the former Algeria boss, who is missing a host of regulars from his squad, said. "If you think there are hundreds of top level players in Japan, you are wrong.
"This squad did the best they could do and they fought like lions and some of the players are very tired, so I can't criticise them.
"But for the next game I'd like to change the starting lineup. The finishing I can't really change, but if I can win all three matches at this championship that would be nice. But, match after match, it becomes tougher. I expect Korea and China to be more aggressive."
Japan, like the other teams in the tournament, have come into the competition missing Europe-based players like Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe, due to the event not being played during international dates on the FIFA calendar.
And, with Urawa Red Diamonds playing in the FIFA Club World Cup in United Arab Emirates, and key midfielders such as Cerezo Osaka's Hotaru Yamaguchi out due to injury, Halilhodzic is working with an unfamiliar group of players.
Despite that, there were standout performances for the Japanese against North Korea. Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura impressed on his debut between the posts while Halilhodzic also praised the contribution of Junya Ito, who came on a substitute.
"I used a young goalkeeper and he showed us that although he is young he was able to solve many problems," Halilhodzic said. "That was a good discovery and also Ito, when he had the ball he was able to go past the opposition.
"These players have given us a positive element to the squad. We don't have any players who are strong when it comes to one-on-one situations so that was good because Ito was able to pass through the opponent.
"But there were many players who were playing their first game for Japan and we were not able to call up many players when we were making this team.
"I mentioned Nakamura because he deserves credit. That was the first cap for Nakamura and Ito, again this is his first cap. He could start the play and open up the play and make the difference at the finish and that's something I value highly. He can pass through the opposition and leave them behind."
Japan will face China in their second game on Tuesday evening, while South Korea will play North Korea.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch