A new-look Japan marked the debut of coach Vahid Halilhodzic with a 2-0 win against African visitors Tunisia in the first of two March friendlies.
The Bosnian-born French manager, who took charge of the Samurai Blue earlier this month, immediately set out to test unfamiliar players with a lineup that included two senior debuts in defender Hiroku Fujiharu and striker Kengo Kawamata.
In an unusual sight, Japan stars Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Kagawa watched the kickoff from the bench in favour of “bubble” players such as midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake and winger Kensuke Nagai.
Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, making his first full senior appearance in five years, was rarely troubled by the in the first half as Japan attempted to implement Halilhodzic’s preferred style of swift attacking.
But Japan’s front line clearly struggled against the the Tunisian defence, who boasted a clear height advantage over their hosts.
After avoiding any changes at half time, Halilhodzic finally brought out his big guns when he sent on Kagawa and Honda at the hour mark.
The move paid off as Japan looked as though they had taken the lead in the 66th minute when Maya Yoshida headed in Honda’s corner kick, but the play was waved off by Australian referee Ben Williams due to a foul.
Gamba Osaka striker Takashi Usami made his own senior debut in the 72nd minute along with Okazaki.
The Mainz man found himself all alone in the far corner just six minutes later with plenty of room to head in a Honda cross for the game’s first goal.
Japan’s lead doubled in the 82nd minute after Tunisian goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifa could only get one hand on Kagawa’s narrow-angled shot, allowing Honda to stuff in a second effort.
22-year-old Usami nearly made it 3-0 in the 90th minute with a well-placed shot that bounced off the inside of the post, but the result was more than enough to get “Halilhodzic Japan” off to a flying start.
The Samurai Blue will conclude their March camp with a friendly against Uzbekistan on March 31 in Tokyo ahead of April 14’s 2018 World Cup/2019 Asian Cup Joint Qualification group stage draw.