RUSTENBURG - Team spirit and a growing belief in their own exceptional talents have not only taken Japan into the last 16, but also rekindled a pre-finals dream of reaching the semi-finals.
Japan clinched their place in the second round for the first time on foreign soil by beating Denmark 3-1 in stylish fashion on Thursday, producing a brand of fast, slick and technical attacking football that delighted their fans and neutrals.
Japan now face Paraguay in Pretoria on Tuesday.
Afterwards, pleased but not satisfied, they made it clear they believe that will not be the end of their South African adventure and they can go much closer to realising coach Takeshi Okada's audacious pre-tournament challenge.
"I did talk of that aim (semi-finals) before we came to the tournament, but it was mostly a target I set to motivate our team," he said. "It has mostly served its purpose now. It was vital for everyone to train with the highest possible motivation and we have done that."
Okada's bold talk of the last four was forgotten as the Japanese struggled through a pre-tournament run of poor results.
But it was revived impressively by three fine goals against the Danes, two from brilliant free-kicks by Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo in the first half-hour, and a late Shinji Okazaki effort.
At times, the "Samurai Blue" played with a flair associated with Brazil at the Royal Bafokeng stadium as they seized a victory that secured second place in their final Group E contest and left the Danes chasing shadows.
The result delighted and satisfied Okada, 53, who took over for his second spell as coach in December 2007, when Ivica Osim suffered a stroke.
A LOT OF RUNNING
"We were not passive, we were offensive and the team worked very hard," he said. "The opening win gave us confidence and the players ran and ran very much - we knew the finals would be played in winter so we have prepared for a lot of running."
Japan's attacking flourish was built on flooding midfield with a flexible 4-5-1 formation and then counter-attacking at pace.
"Against their power, I knew we had to prepare a few plans, but it was most important not to lose the ball and we stuck well to our fundamental plans," said Okada.
"They had tall players, but we worked hard to stop them having a big superiority in the aerial play. Even in the loud noise, they made good decisions. Now we will focus on, and prepare for, Paraguay."
Honda, whose wand-like left foot bedazzled the Danes as he scored one goal and set up another, confirmed Japan have serious ambitions.
"For us, this was a big win. I am glad we won, but I am not satisfied," he said. "For me, for the team, the next game is more important because we want to show the Japanese people that nothing is impossible."comments