19 June ~ Neither Japan nor Cameroon will have won many friends as a result of their turgid Group E opener in Bloemfontein on Monday, but for coach Takeshi Okada his team's 1-0 win constituted nothing less than a vindication of his approach – to the amazement of press and fans alike. Okada has long been mocked as a result of his team producing a series of hopeless performances in recent friendlies. But the arch conservative turned out to have sufficient vision to select a side and a manner of playing which, while far from pretty and far from standard J-League fare, enabled Japan to pick up their first ever World Cup finals win outside their own country.
Shunsuke Nakamura may still be a wildly popular figure in Japan, but for the Cameroon match the ex-Celtic star was dropped in favour of winger Daisuke Matsui, whose mobility and willingness to work hard for the team were topped off by the cross that enabled Keisuke Honda to score what turned out to be the winning goal. As well as a more flexible approach to team selection, the Japan coach also seems to have been able to summon from somewhere a rather unexpected ability to motivate his players, as evidenced by defensive duo Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa toiling relentlessly to keep the Indomitable Lions at bay.
Rigorous defence may have won the day against Cameroon, but Okada surely can't expect the same method to yield the same result against Holland today. The two sides met in a friendly last September, when a pressing game had Japan on level terms and well in contention until 20 minutes from time. At that point, however, they wilted badly and went on to lose 3-0, Nakamura in particular looking completely out of sorts as Dutch attacking strength saw them run away with it in the end. CSKA Moscow's Honda has already indicated that he expects the team to play tomorrow with less of a defensive focus.
Reports in the last couple of days suggest that the pre-tournament training camp in Switzerland highlighted problems with altitude sickness for Shinji Okazaki and that the Shimizu S-Pulse striker may return to the starting line-up for the Holland game, which is to be played closer to sea level in Durban. Such a change would likely see Honda take a step back into his more customary attacking midfield role. Okada, laughed at for setting a target of a semi-final spot, moved quickly to describe the defeat of Cameroon as "not an achievement at all", saying that "what's coming next is the point". Back home, an ecstatic, astonished Japan holds its breath. Mike Innes