Japan 1-1 Mali: Nakajima scores in international debut as Samurai Blue struggle

A late Shoya Nakajima goal spared Japan blushes in a 1-1 draw against Mali on Friday afternoon at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne in Liege, Belgium.

Head coach Valid Halilhodzic chose to leave several of his more experienced players on the bench, instead giving defender Tomoya Ugajin his international debut and granting attacking midfielder Ryota Morioka his first senior start since October 2014.

The first moment of danger for either side came in the ninth minute when Mali’s Adama Traore forced a close save by Kosuke Nakamura, the talented Rio Olympian who made his international debut in last year’s EAFF E-1 Championship.

As the match settled down Japan earned the lion’s share of possession, taking advantage of Mali’s high defensive line to make numerous direct runs on goal. A 24th-minute corner kick by  Takashi Usami found its way in front of the Mali goal, but a succession of Japanese players were unable to wrestle the ball into the net.

After several more close chances on the Mali goal by Usami, Yuya Osako, and Yuya Kubo, it was Mali who drew first blood in the 44th minute when Abdoulay Diaby converted a penalty awarded after Ugajin’s second major foul of the match.

With Japan’s progress stalled early in the second half, Halilhodzic attempted to tip the balance by introducing Kashima Antlers midfielder Kento Misao and Portimonense attacker Shoya Nakajima.

In the 70th minute it was at last time to bring on Keisuke Honda, the Pachuca star whose form in the Liga MX Clausura earned him his first call-up since September. But the veteran failed to make an impact, often choosing to send in crosses from the right side rather than venture toward the centre of the pitch.

The African side looked ready to claim victory when goalkeeper Djigui Diarra collided with his own defender in front of the goal during a last-ditch Japan attach, with 23-year-old Nakajima scoring on an empty net after his initial cross ended up back at his feet following Misao’s assist.

Japan will conclude their Belgium camp on March 27 with a friendly against Ukraine.