Shoji wonder goal fires Japan to win vs. China in East Asian Championships
Gen Shoji's outrageous strike from the edge of the centre circle put considerable gloss on another muted performance from World Cup-bound Japan as Vahid Halilhodzic's makeshift side secured a 2-1 win over China at the East Asian Championship in Tokyo on Tuesday evening.
Shoji's long-range attempt evaded Wang Dalei, despite the goalkeeper having a clear sight of the ball from the moment the central defender took aim, only for the shot to fly over his head to double Japan's lead with just three minutes remaining.
Yu Kobayashi, recently named the J.League's Most Valuable Player, had given Japan an 84th-minute lead with a fine finish from a tight angle. But the Japanese needed Shoji's long-range effort to take all three points, as Yu Dabao found the back of the net with an added-time penalty for China.
"I think he wanted to clear the ball instead of scoring, but it was a fantastic goal," Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said of Shoji's winner. "I told them to try to play long balls towards the other goal. I told the other players to do that, but not Shoji.
"It was a wonderful game and it was a wonderful win for my team. In the second half, we had some problems and they could create chances to score, but after that the quality of play was really good."
The win moves Japan on to six points from their first two games after a 1-0 win over North Korea on Saturday and a draw against South Korea at the weekend will give the title to the Japanese. China, meanwhile, remain stuck on one point having drawn with South Korea in their opening game.
China coach Marcello Lippi made six changes to the team who drew 2-2 with South Korea, handing the captain's armband to Yu Dabao. Wang replaced Yan Junling between the posts and Li Xuepeng started after impressing off the bench on Saturday.
Japan, too, made wholesale changes, with only Shoji, Yasuyuki Konno and Shu Kurata surviving from the starting lineup against North Korea.
It was Kobayashi who looked most likely in the first half to break the deadlock as he unsettled the Chinese defence.
China, though, had opportunities to notch up what would have been their first win over Japan in almost 20 years.
Yu Dabao saw his close range attempt blocked by Masaaki Higashiguchi while a minute later Wei Shihao blazed over the bar, despite having the time and space to pick his spot.
Kobayashi finally found the back of the net in the 84th minute when he capitalised as Wang spilled the ball before Shoji crucially doubled the lead with his audacious effort.
"It was a very difficult game, especially in the first half," Lippi said. "During the first 15 minutes, I think Japan fought very hard and it was a game that was very balanced between the teams.
"In the second half, our players, especially Yu Dabao, were very aggressive inside the pitch and they created a lot of chances for us.
"What I can say is that when you play, you have to have a certain mentality to keep possession of the ball. That's really important and I understand that Japan does this better than China at the moment and this translates into the result of the game."
South Korea, meawhile, picked up their first win of the East Asian Championship with Shin Tae-Yong's side only taking all three points thanks to an own goal by Ri Yong-Chol of North Korea at Ajinomoto Stadium.
Ri's redirected Kim Min-Woo cross from the left past goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk as the North Koreans slipped to a second straight single goal loss in the competition.
Jorn Andersen's side were left to rue their misfortune as they did after their 1-0 loss to hosts Japan on Saturday, and the result leaves the North Koreans with no chance of winning the title.
Shin Tae-Yong's World Cup-bound South Korea, however, now sit on four points from their opening two games with the win adding three points to the one they collected with Saturday's 2-2 draw against China.
"The first game was an unlucky result for us, but the players did what I asked them to do and I think they did a good job and I'm thankful for that," Shin said. "I think South Korea, is little by little, getting better."
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch