SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea winning its third East Asian Cup on Sunday was no surprise. Japan finishing bottom of the four-team competition that included China and North Korea was less expected.
Earning just two points from three games in the Chinese city of Wuhan was a disappointing return for Japan even if the Samurai Blue was, like South Korea, experimenting with a lineup without European-based players.
South Korea collected five points, and China and North Korea took second and third with four points each as the four teams prepare for World Cup qualifiers in September.
After a closing 1-1 draw with China on Sunday evening, Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said that if his team's preparations had been different, the trophy would be heading to Tokyo instead of Seoul.
"We would have won the competition had we arrived here two or three days earlier," the Bosnian told Japan's Kyodo News Agency. "We have many problems and we'll try to solve them.
"We played quite a good game (against China), we played well enough to win," he added.
Japan opened the tournament with a 2-1 loss to North Korea thanks to two late goals, and then drew South Korea 1-1 before meeting the hosts.
With the tournament not recognized by FIFA, European clubs were not obliged to release their players. This meant that Japan could not call upon stars such as Italian-based Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe in Germany and Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida in England.
The high point for Japan was the goal scoring of new striker Yuki Muto, who scored twice.
Halilhodzic led Algeria to the second round of the 2014 World Cup and was appointed by Japan in February. Following a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to lowly Singapore in June's opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, four-time continental champion Japan is now four games without a win against Asian opposition.
The pressure may not yet be on Halilhodzic, but there has been some criticism back home of his selection policy for the East Asian Cup, held roughly every two years.
2014 World Cup striker Yoshito Okubo questioned the coach's decisions, telling The Japan Times that the results were to be expected.
"There are people looking at the players in the squad and asking, 'who?' They're the players that the manager has chosen, and I think it stands to reason that you get those results," said Okuba, who felt he should have been called to the team. "But it's not just me. Definitely there are a lot of other players in the J. League who think they should be there."
South Korea was happier. Also without European-based stars, the 2015 Asian Cup runner-up was the deserved winner, with a young team producing the performance of the tournament.
For coach Uli Stielike, turning chances into goals remains a problem but at least there were chances created. The emergence of attacking players Lee Jong-ho, Kim Seung-dae and Lee Jae-sung was welcome. "I told my players that I am proud of them," the German told reporters. "It's important to win but it's more important to show that we can keep improving."
China was looking to build on a reasonably successful Asian Cup in January, when it reached the quarterfinals, and would have lifted the trophy had it defeated Japan on Sunday. After being outclassed by South Korea in the opening game, Alain Perrin made some changes and defeated North Korea 2-0.
"It's a regret that we lost the first match, but in the rest of the matches, we played well," the Frenchman told reporters. "I am not satisfied with the final score we got, but I am pleased to see that my players showcased their fighting spirit."