Japan earns draw in World Cup opener

Saitama Stadium reverberated with the electric rapture of over 55, 000 fans on Tuesday, as Japan earned a 2-2 draw with Belgium in its World Cup opener.

Japan's coach Philippe Troussier said the result was a positive first step in helping his squad advance to the second round.

"We can consider this point as a historic one because it's the first point Japan have gained in a World Cup," Troussier said. "I'm satisfied because everything is still possible in the next two matches and I think we have a strong chance [to advance]."

"I felt that we were controlling the opposition and the match," offered Belgian coach Robert Waseige. "But Japan suddenly appeared to find more penetration and more depth and we lost all control of the match."

After a dull first frame, the second half produced the most exciting 45 minutes at the World Cup so far, with four goals in the space of 18 minutes. The pace of the game was absolutely breathless in the second half, as both teams showed a great deal of character in coming back from one goal down.

Belgian midfielder Marc Wilmots struck first, in the 57th minute, with a firecracker of a bicycle-kick that silenced the throngs of Japan's rabid supporters.

Undeterred, Japan stormed back and finally broke the Belgian resistance two minutes later. Junichi Inamoto sent a long pass over the heads of Belgium's defenders, allowing Takayuki Suzuki to run onto the end of the ball and poke it past Belgian goalkeeper Geert De Vlieger. Suzuki's goal, the fourth of his international career, sent the crowd into pandemonium.

Nine minutes later, Inamoto collected the ball just inside the Belgium half and went on a 30-yard run, splitting the defence before hammering the ball past De Vlieger and inside the far post from 20 yards out to give Japan a 2-1 advantage.

However, Japan's lead didn't last long. In the 75th minute, defender Peter Van der Heyden eluded his marker to run onto a through pass and chipped the ball from just inside the penalty area over the head of Japanese goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki.

Inamoto thought he had scored another go-ahead goal, but he was called for a foul inside Belgium's peanlty area before chipping his shot over De Vlieger with four minute left in the game.

"We knew we had to play better in the second half and we did," said Inamoto, whose club team is the English champion Arsenal. "This was a great game for us and a great game for Japan because it gives us a chance to go into the next round but we're not there yet."

The Japanese looked nervous in the first half, their technique in handling the ball continually letting them down. They also showed little attacking flair or instinct, and were unable to penetrate the stalwart defence of The Red Devils.

With Japan unable to create any scoring opportunities, Belgium started to launch its attack in the 30th minute. Narazaki made one of the best saves of the tournament so far, diving to deflect Wilmots' header from 15 yards out past the endline and out of danger.

Curiously, Waseige did not start forward Wesley Sonck - the top scorer in the Belgian league this past season with 30 goals and the reigning Belgium Footballer of the year - only inserting him into the game in the 71st minute as a substitute.

  • Game notes: Japan's next game is against Russia on June 9 (CBC, 3:30 p.m. LOCAL - Tape Delay), while Belgium faces Tunisia on June 10.

      IMPACT PLAYERS:

  • Japan: Junichi Inamoto -- With his brilliant, dashing runs down the left side of the field, Inamoto set up Japan's first goal and scored the other.

  • Belgium: Marc Wilmots -- The inventive, playmaking midfielder opened the scoring for Belgium and created several scoring chances for his teammates.

    With files from the Associated Press