Palestine made its AFC Asian Cup debut on Monday against reigning champions Japan. Despite playing passionately for the entire match, the Palestinians fell short to the Blue Samurais, conceding three goals in the first half and a fourth goal at the start of the second half.
Palestine did not expect to win against Japan but they certainly played as though they had every intention to. Their defense was, for the most part, very capable of marking Japan’s stealthy forwards and disrupting their offensive tactics. Despite an awkward start, goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh showed the 15,000 spectators why he is the most suitable player to captain the Palestinian national team. His quick hands and swift dives kept Japan from pulling away with a much greater lead. One memorable performance happened in the second half during a long scramble in front of the goal when Saleh and the Palestinian defensive backs successfully protected their net from at least three consecutive shot attempts.
Palestine’s valiant efforts did not go unrecognized by the Japanese players, the commentators, and especially the fans, who maintained a very party-like atmosphere for the duration of the game. Palestinian flags waved alongside flags of their “Middle Eastern cousins,” as one commentator put it, and familiar nationalistic chants could be heard booming from the supporter’s section even during the match’s slowest moments. “Free, free Palestine” chants took over the stadium in Newcastle after the final whistle.
Overall, Japan dominated the match from the outset. Endo led Japan’s midfield while Honda and Okazaki controlled the pace of the game up front. The Japanese side came out in full force and played a heavy attacking game in the first half that was largely successful. But Palestine took on the second half with a renewed sense of poise and came out swinging.
Considering the fact that this is Palestine’s first match at this top tier of play, this experience will certainly provide them with valuable experience to take on Jordan on Friday and Iraq on Tuesday. The players were able to identify weak points and will seek to fill those gaps before their next two group stage matches.
More detailed match notes are below.
First half match notes:
Japan took immediate control of the match, connecting passes and sending the ball upfield very early in the game.
The first goal (Endo 8′) slid by Ramzi Saleh who seemed slow off of his feet. The second goal (Okazaki 24′) came in the form of an impressive header that Okazaki ricocheted off of a rocket from further out. The third goal (Honda 44′ [pen]) came after a costly foul in the penalty box by Ashraf Nu’man Alfawaghra.
Japan maintained 67% possession and thoroughly controlled the pace of the game.
Palestine’s counterattacks were quick and frequent, but they were not connecting passes further upfield.
Palestine’s defensive backs have done a good job of putting a stop to many of Japan’s offensive maneuvers. They managed to intercept quite a few of Japan’s passes which is impressive considering Japan’s status as the best attacking team in all of Asia.
Palestine needs to maintain its composure in the second half if it expects to close in on Japan. Palestine also needs to take advantage of through-passing opportunities. The lanes exist, but the squad is not taking advantage of them.
Palestine also needs to pace themselves. They were gassed in the opening twenty minutes of play. There was a sequence of controlled passes later in the half that earned them much praise from the fans and commentators for displaying a more reasonable style of play.
Palestine trailed Japan 3-0 at the close of the half.
Japan broke away early to push their lead up to four goals to nil (Yoshida 49′). This likely devastated Palestine’s morale since it came so soon after the squad had come out of the locker room expecting a better half of play.
Japan softened their attack for the remainder of the game and at times played very sloppily. Most shot attempts from the Blue Samurais came from far outside of the box and whizzed far from the posts. Nevertheless, the team held on for an easy win.
Palestine played valiantly despite their defeat. Toward the latter part of the second half, the Palestinians showed new life as they began experimenting with scoring opportunities that seemed, at times, to put catch the Japanese defenders off guard.
Palestine had suffered a few setbacks early in the match but nothing could prepare them for Ahmed Mahajna’s second booking, which effectively sent the brilliant right wing defender off. Down to ten men, Palestine managed to hold off Japan’s offensive maneuvers. But Mahajna will be suspended from playing in Palestine’s upcoming match against Jordan – a match that many expect to be a lot closer and a lot more exciting.
Palestine must reconsider its style of play and prepare for the next two matches. To advance out of the group stage, they will likely need to win both games.
Specifically, Palestine will need to correct mistakes in the following three areas if they expect a better outcome in the coming matches.
First touches were mostly sloppy and led to interceptions by Japanese midfielders and defensive backs. Japan was slow against the counterattack, and had Palestine perfected the quick one-two passing down the wings, they might have been able to close the gap a bit.
Palestine must also work on managing the pace of the game. Their best moments came after linking passes and using the width of the field.
Additionally, Palestine’s midfielders must do a better job of spreading the field. There were a few instances when players crowded around the ball instead of looking for opportunities to open up passing lanes.
Despite these shortcomings, Palestine played with vigor. They were the much more physical team – at times, maybe too physical. But no matter how large Japan’s lead was, Palestine played hard until the final whistle.
Japan walked away with a 4-0 win against Palestine.
Palestine plays Jordan on Friday.
Photo credit: Joosep Martinson, WSG