Japan's Chinese flop sparks World Cup alarm

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Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's abject failure at the East Asian Cup triggered alarm in local media Monday with some slamming coach Vahid Halilhodzic for making excuses.

A photograph of the Franco-Bosnian coach hunched over, banging a water bottle against his head in frustration was splashed across several sports pages, including the back of the Nikkan Sports daily under the headline "The weakest ever".

Japan had never finished last since the four-team tournament began in 2003 but after being upset 2-1 by North Korea in their opening game, their challenge ended in a whimper in Wuhan, China.

The knives were being sharpened for Halilhodzic, who only took charge five months ago, after Japan failed to bounce back and could only draw 1-1 with eventual champions South Korea and hosts China.

"I'm angry that the media say I'm making excuses," said Halilhodzic, cutting a tormented figure after finishing the East Asian Cup still searching for his first victory in four competitive matches.

"There is embarrassment but I have to be a realist."

Halilhodzic, who led Algeria to the knockout stages of last year's World Cup, took over as Japan coach after Mexican Javier Aguirre was sacked following the team's early exit from the Asian Cup in January.

Japan were missing European-based stars such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa in China, but to finish bottom will sting, coming after their failure to beat tiny Singapore in a World Cup qualifier in June.

The Sankei Sports blasted the performance as a "disgrace" and put the boot into Halilhodzic for blaming the schedule for Japan's meek performances.

"If we had come to China two or three days earlier we probably would have won all our games," he was quoted as saying.

"The players are struggling a bit with fatigue. You (journalists) ask a lot of questions and are probably criticising me, but I know football."

Halilhodzic, who has developed something of a siege mentality since his honeymoon period ended abruptly with the goalless draw at home to Singapore, attempted to put a positive spin on Japan's draw with China but ultimately came up short.

"I congratulated the players and said let's continue playing like that," he said, aware Japan can ill afford further slip-ups in next month's World Cup qualifiers against Cambodia and Afghanistan.

"I found two or three new players but I expect more effort from others. There are still some players who say 'konnichi wa' (hello) and that's it."

Japan Football Association (JFA) president Kuniya Daini was not amused.

"I deeply apologise to the fans for coming last," he told the Asahi newspaper. "It hasn't been long since Halilhodzic became coach and the team is still not functioning properly."

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