In a captivating evening of knockout football across the country, with a dozen goals scored in the other three games, it was the goalless draw at Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata which gifted the most enthralling of scenarios to the spectators.
The Young Lions booked their tickets for the quarter-finals courtesy a 5-3 win on penalties, but it was the sheer drama in the first 90 minutes as neither side managed to find the elusive key moment when the spotlight could have shone on them, which made the game such a riveting encounter for the 53,000-odd Kolkata fans.
First the highlight reel of Japan, which prompted Yoshiro Moriyama to comment after the game that “it went almost as it was planned.”
Four minutes into the first half, Soichiro Kozuki of Japan forced a save off English custodian Anderson after a quick counter down the right wing. Thirty-four minutes later, Keito Nakamura and Toichi Suzuki combined but could only find the side netting. A minute before half-time, Kuzuki failed to keep his shot down after finding ample of space in the 18-yard box.
Three minutes from full-time, Mishoyara’s shot was deflected for a corner while the former La Masia member, Takefusa Kubo could not get past Manchester City’s Anderson even with his successive attacking forays into England’s defensive third.
Japan, lining up in a traditional 4-4-2, played with 10 men behind the ball whenever they conceded possession in their own half. But the Asian side had managed to crop out the defensive errors from their game, making the Young Lions work that much harder for a breakthrough.
England, in their usual 4-3-3 formation, started with Callum Hudson-Odoi on the left, Phil Foden on the right, Rhian Brewster through the centre and skipper Angel Gomes at the cusp of the midfield triangle, with Tashan Oakley-Boothe and George McEachran at the base. Japan, completely aware that they won’t be able to match up with the supremely-talented English players on a man-to-man basis, chose to play to their strengths — having attempted a similar style of football in their loss to France, Japan’s defence stood strong to everything England threw at them.
Gomes, making his second consecutive start of the tournament, operated in the small pocket between Japan’s two banks of four, while Foden on the right midfield channel was once again the most influential English player on the pitch.
The 5’6 midfielder, who has already drawn comparisons with his club manager’s favourite playmaker David Silva because of his razor-sharp decision making, passing range and positional awareness, created some of the finer chances of the night. In fact, had Brewster hit the target from Foden’s defence-splitting pass in the 27th minute, England could have taken complete control of the narrative.
Brewster, who later scored England’s first penalty, had a weird outing — he consistently found himself in the right positions within the eighteen-yard box, but his wayward shooting symbolized England’s night in front of the goal — indecisive and imprecise.
Hudson-Odoi had big boots to fill on the left flank, replacing Jadon Sancho – the Chelsea player started slow but his shimmying runs in the second half and dangerous, low crosses which the Japanese defence often failed to read suggested England might miss Hudson-Odoi’s link-up play with Sancho for the rest of the tournament, but the 17-year-old has them covered when it comes to skillful, pacy playmaking on the left wing.
Sancho was definitely a big miss for Steve Cooper, for the Borussia Dortmund winger can change the game in a matter of minutes, but it was George McEachran’s uneventful performance in the midfield which hurt England more and allowed Japan to get back into the game in the second half.
Having defended desperately for the first 70 minutes, Japan took a leaf out of England’s debonair football as the Japanese Messi wielded his magic wand to peg England back into their own half and starve the otherwise elegant English players off possession — Naoki Tsubaki’s substitution, which seemed surprising when he replaced top scorer Nakamura, worked like a charm as it freed up Kubo to take the game to England.
Japan would go on to end the normal time of play with five shots on target, one more than their European counterparts – one of the least probable outcomes considering the attacking riches England possess. As the minutes went by and penalties loomed closer and closer – England weren’t just up against an invigorated Japanese side pumped up by their perfect execution of a well-thought gameplan over the past 90 minutes, but also history.
Facing their second penalty shootout in as many knockout games in two different competitions, England were eager to overcome the demons of their losing penalty shootout against Spain just a few months back. As Nya Kirby’s spot kick managed to wiggle past a diving Tani to send England through to the quarter-finals, Cooper heaved a sigh of relief while his Japanese counterpart could only revel in the show of “strength playing as a unit against a strong opponent."
In the engrossing tactical battle between the two continental heavyweights, it was England whose goalscoring chances were legion, but it was Japan who won the hearts with their astute defending — the heartbreaking loss on penalties notwithstanding, such was Japan’s resilience on the night that late into the second half, Moriyama’s boys even won over the Kolkata crowd which had all but acted as a home support for Steve Cooper’s side.
And the English manager was quick to realise that.
“The city has been amazing, the crowd, the attendance. It has been amazing, so good for the players, not just England but all the players in such developmental tournaments. The local public deserves a pat in the back for that,” Cooper told reporters after the game.
England now travel to Margao to face the United States in the quarter-final, a team which will pose a different challenge than the ones the English have usurped till date, but England won’t love anything more than to make the return journey to the mecca of Indian football later this month.
“We’ll love to comeback to Kolkata obviously to stay in the competition,” Cooper concluded.
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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 14:55:33 IST