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

Comments (3)
Comment by t.j.vickerman 2010-06-19 17:00:38

Always easy to say with hindsight but, as is so depressingly common at this tournament, Japan put men behind the ball, worked hard, defended well and were only undone by a goal that Kawashima really should have saved. Though he made amends with two excellent saves later. They could still have snatched a point with a glorious chance falling to Okazaki.

In fairness to Okada, Japan have never managed to find a forward effective at international level but they can defend stoutly and keep the ball with a five man midfield. They tried a more expansive approach under Zico at WC 2006 and that ended in one draw and two defeats (in an admittedly tough group).

Comment by Furtho 2010-06-19 20:05:55

I don't necessarily think that the problem in this instance was the lack of a forward effective at international level but rather Okada's substitutions, which made a team that struggles to play the killer pass yet less penetrative. It's not as if Japan missed a lot of chances, more that when playing a team like Holland they struggle to create scoring opportunities in the first place.

And if you already have Yasuhito Endo in midfield, it's hard to understand why when you're chasing the game the introduction of another very slow player like Shunsuke Nakamura is going to add anything - especially when it means taking off the mobile, hard-working Matsui.

Overall I think Japan have surprised themselves with their competitiveness in the two games so far and there's certainly an argument which says that a 1-0 defeat to the Dutch represents a level of progress. But Holland didn't play particularly well and the frustrating thing is that a more dynamic approach in the latter stages could have enabled Japan to get something out of the game.

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2010-06-20 02:36:32


You make some good points, but I'm not sure Japan has ever really produced the incisive forwards needed to adopt a more attacking philosophy. I think if they tried with the current players, they would have been beaten comfortably. Arguably Japan did get forward a little more in the latter stages but that was when Holland had their two best chances.

I think they have always lacked an outlet, a player who can hold the ball, relieve pressure and allow the midfielders time to take up more advanced positions. A Japanese Heskey, if you like. Ok, bad example.

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