24 June ~ Japanese fans who stayed up until 5.30 on Sunday morning to follow the match between Cameroon and Denmark had plenty of time to mull over the unexpected twists and turns of tournament football. A few hours previously, the failure of Shinji Okazaki to convert what would have been an injury-time equaliser against Holland seemed to have tipped the balance of power in Group E away from the Japanese, making their progression to the knock-out phase of the World Cup a whole lot less likely. Tokyo city planners rested easy at Arsène Wenger's pre-tournament assertion that a statue of coach Takeshi Okada be raised in the centre of the capital if Japan get through the group stage.
But Okazaki's close-range blast over the bar was rendered irrelevant by a 2-1 win for the Danes, which handed the initiative back to Okada and his squad. The upshot is that if they can avoid defeat in tonight's game with Denmark, Japan will be through to the Round of 16. Okada's oft-repeated target of a semi-final spot therefore becomes that little bit less preposterous, particularly in view of the fact that if Japan can draw or beat the Danes their most probable next opponents are Paraguay. A difficult match, yes, but one that could be tougher when the prize is a place in the last eight of the World Cup.
Perhaps inevitably, having scraped past Cameroon in the first game Okada stuck with the same line-up against Holland and during that match demonstrated why he has so often frustrated Japanese supporters. Trying to get back on level terms after Wesley Sneijder's goal, Okada took off hard-working winger Daisuke Matsui – regarded by some as the team's best performer in the tournament – and replaced him with Shunsuke Nakamura, whose subsequent lack of urgency prompted former Japan coach Ivica Osim to comment that it looked as if Nakamura had wanted to "bring out a sofa on the pitch and smoke a cigar".
Even the modest attacking momentum built up by players like Matsui, Keisuke Honda and wing-back Yuto Nagatomo quickly dissipated, as the changes brought about by Okada served merely to make the team more ponderous. And the reality is that the Japanese team under their current coach are rarely able to raise the pace of a game, meaning that if they do go a goal down against Denmark it will be that much harder to fight back. Neighbours South Korea have made it through to the knock-out phase and Japan will never have a better opportunity to follow suit. If Okada can deliver over the course of those 90 minutes, Wenger's suggestion may yet become an unlikely reality. Mike Innes