Group C: Samurai feeling the Blues as they fail to cut down Greece
Let’s be honest here. Nobody in their wildest dreams really expected Japan to go very far in the World Cup this year.
But with a squad containing the likes of Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan) and Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), surely they can do better than be held to a goalless draw by a 10-man Greek side?
Head coach Alberto Zaccheroni summed up his team’s problems best when he said after the game: “We had a lot of possession, had a lot of chances and we didn't capitalise on them. We should have won."
The statistics from the match back up Zaccheroni’s words, and tell a startling story of utter domination by the reigning AFC Asian Cup champions.
Japan had almost 75% possession and completed more than 4 times the amount of passes (495) than the Greeks (115). Japan had 18 shots in total (11 on goal) but in truth, they never really troubled Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, with only Yoshito Okubo and Yuya Osako coming closest to scoring.
It surely must be a worry for Zaccheroni that his team failed to create many notable chances even with their one man advantage. So far, four other teams in the tournament have been reduced to 10 men, and all of them have suffered comprehensive defeats. In the unforgiving South American heat and humidity, playing with one player less is about as fun as listening to Justin Bieber songs on repeat for an entire day. (Ed - Is this from personal experience, Noah?)
Some have pointed to the fact that Kagawa’s absence from the starting 11 meant creativity in the final third was always going to be an issue. The former Borussia Dortmund man has the uncanny ability to find space in the box where there is none, is a brilliant passer of the ball, and is usually calm and clinical in front of goal.
But the 25-year-old is a shadow of his former self (thanks a lot David Moyes!). Bereft of any semblance of confidence, the only space Kagawa can find nowadays is on the bench. Ineffective and near anonymous against Ivorian right-back Serge Aurier in the opening match, Zaccheroni’s decision not to start his ‘star’ player was wholly understandable. And based on how little Kagawa contributed to the attack when he came on in the 57th minute, it certainly was a justified one.
Take nothing away from the Greek defence though. Like the Spartan army under King Leonidas all those years back, the odds were firmly stacked against them once captain Kostas Katsouranis was sent off in the 38th minute. But unlike what befell Leonidas and his famous 300 men (if you don’t already know, they were eventually killed by the Persian army), this Greek side held firm to prevent the Samurai Blue from doing any damage.
It was a defensive performance reminiscent of their heroics at their famous victory at the 2004 European Championships. The centre-back pairing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas were uncompromising in the tackle, commanding in the air and simply unbeatable one-on-one. Papastathopoulos in particular was outstanding, as he calmly organised his backline to stifle the Japansese attack, which grew increasingly lacklustre as the match wore on.
Another worry for Zaccheroni was how far from assured his defence was whenever Greece attacked. Their backline came under fire following their lackadaisical display against Ivory Coast in the previous match, with the mere presence of a certain Didier Drogba enough to send jitters down their spine.
Perhaps they were overwhelmed by Drogba’s illustrious reputation then (who wouldn’t be?).
But with all due respect, the Greek strike force of Giorgos Samaras and Kostas Mitroglou (along with the latter’s replacement Theofanis Gekas) are certainly no Drogba. Yet, Japan’s backline panicked whenever Greece launched a rare attack, and could have even lost the game if not for a few good stops from goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
Japan are a team that is far from assured in defence and with an attack sorely lacking in ideas. Things certainly look bleak for them heading into their must-win final group game against the thus far irrepressible Colombians. The worst thing is, Zaccheroni appears to have run out of ideas on how to turn the tide. The Italian tactician may have won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999, but he looks increasingly beleaguered with each passing match without success. Pumping balls into the box for the 1.78m tall Yasuhito Endo in search for a winner simply is not the answer.
A change in squad personnel might be needed. A fresh injection of pace, flair, and more importantly, hunger into the squad may be able to lift them to an unlikely victory over the Colombians. The likes of Yokohama Marinos striker Manabu Saito and Nuremberg attacking midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake have not yet been given a chance to showcase their unquestionable talent on the world stage. Give them a try Zaccheroni, and you may be surprised.
The Japanese were the first team to qualify for Brazil 2014. Many still view them as THE pride of Asia in this World Cup. It would be a shame for them to leave the tournament without a victory, and with their tails tucked between their legs. It’s time for the Blue Samurai to finally unsheathe their katanas, sharpen it, and strike as hard as they can against Colombia.
Speaking of which...
The Colombians were once again highly impressive in their 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.
While some were quick to write off their 3-0 victory in the opening match over Greece as an anomaly, there can be no doubt now that the South Americans should be regarded as a force to be reckoned with.
Breathtakingly dangerous on the counter-attack, the Colombians often left their Ivorian opponents chasing shadows, and the scoreline could have been more convincing but for some wayward finishing.
As for the African side, they know that just a draw against Greece in their final game will ensure qualification into the last-16. They have yet to fire on all cylinders at this tournament though, which is understandable, given the long and arduous campaign midfield general Yaya Toure had with Manchester City last season.
They should however, be able to do just enough to scrape through to the next round. Anything less, and their campaign will rightly be deemed as a disaster.
Did Die’s dad die?
On an somewhat unrelated but interesting matter, the news that Ivory Coast midfielder Serey Die chose to play on despite finding out about the death of his father just hours earlier, made the rounds on the internet just after the start of the game.
As it turns out, Die’s father has been dead since 2004.
Apparently, someone with too dramatic an imagination decided to post on Twitter an entirely plausible, but absolutely fictional, backstory to why Die was sobbing uncontrollably during the singing of the national anthem.
Such is the crazy world of social media that it did not take long for messages of condolences and encouragement to pour in for Die. This fictional story was even picked up by several notable online publications.
Die has since come out to explain he broke down in tears over the emotion of representing the country. He did add (almost as an afterthought), that memories of his father crossed his mind during the occasion, presumably to save his many sympathisers from some embarrassment.
Noah Tan is a sports radio broadcaster in Singapore who dreams of managing Arsenal one day. He pinky swears that he will spend lots of money on quality players when that day finally comes.