Hajime Moriyasu, the Japan coach, said his side will have to improve if they are to claim a fifth Asian Cup title, after they struggled past Turkmenistan 3-2 in their tournament opener.
The disparity between the resources of the two sides is vast. Japan have won this competition more times than any other, and have brought a squad to the UAE that includes players employed in the top leagues of Germany, Spain, England and France, as well as their own lucrative J-League.
By contrast, just three of Turkmenistan’s 23-man squad ply their trade outside of the Central Asian nation, which ranks among the continent’s most sparsely populated countries.
Arslan Amanov, their captain, showed just why his own Uzbek employers decided to take him across the border to play in their league instead.
Amanov gave the Turkmen a shock 1-0 lead at half-time in the Group F opener, having earlier done his best to set up a goal for Mekan Saparov, only for the defender to head over from underneath the Japan crossbar.
Japan brought their class to bear after the break, though. Yuya Osako, the Werder Bremen forward, scored twice, and Ritsu Doan, who plays in the Netherlands for Groningen, added a third.
Ahmet Atayev added a second for Turkmenistan from the penalty spot, but Japan took the three points following the 3-2 win.
“As the first match of our tournament it was predictable it would be a difficult match,” Moriyasu said.
“We shared with the team that it would be a tough match and it happened, as we predicted.
“The good thing today was that we won, and that we could deliver the victory to the supporters here in UAE, and back home.
“We made the game difficult because we went behind [in the first half]. We need to improve both in attack and defence in the next game.”
Moriyasu acknowledged that the 3pm kick off time had affected his side. Although the attendance at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi was officially registered as 5,725 by the end of the game, it was some way short of that at kick off, and the Japanese players seemed to take their time turning up, too.
“Our training match and our official training [on Tuesday] was at 4pm, so we were prepared for the heat, but it was a little difficult,” Moriyasu said.
“We had some players coming back from the Japanese league and others coming back from European leagues. This was something we knew before the game, and I’m sure we can improve before the next match.”
Turkmenistan’s valiant display was all the more impressive considering the limited experiences their players have had of football beyond their borders.
While just three play outside the country, 11 players in the Turkmenistan squad are drawn from the same club, the champion side Altyn Asyr.
Yazguly Hojageldiyev, the Turkmenistan coach, says the performance against Japan shows football in his country is not to be underestimated.
“Most of the players play domestically, but there are enough games for the players,” Hojageldiyev said.
“For example, the local team Altyn Asyr was in the final of the AFC Cup. These kind of results shows we have the strength to participate in these kind of competitions.
“We are showing results while playing against good teams – the Iran draw [in a practice match], and today against Japan, even though we lost.
“We knew the Japanese team would control the ball a lot, but well done to the guys, they did their best.
“In the first half, we showed a really good performance, but in the second half [they lost out], because of bad luck and losing concentration.”
Hojageldiyev insists his side remain optimistic about reached the second round of the competition for the first time, in their second appearance at the Asian Cup.
They face neighbours Uzbekistan next, at the Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on Sunday, while Japan will face Oman at Zayed Sports City on the same day.