Quarter-finals: France – Colombia – Belgium – Costa Rica
World Cup progress: Group stage
Team rating: 4
Top scorer: Honda, Okazaki (1)
A serious lack of firepower in attack and the excessive burden of expectation prevented Alberto Zaccheroni’s troops from making any discernible impact on the World Cup, writes Livio Caferoglu.
Having exited the previous World Cup in the Round of 16, Japanese hopes were preparing to enter a new realm. The appointment of Alberto Zaccheroni – a seasoned veteran in the Italian game – had not only brought about a new era for the national team, but also a new philosophy which was intended to modernise the country’s football. It promised to be a far cry from the conservative approaches once advocated by its Coaches.
Victories over Argentina, France and Belgium under Zaccheroni’s watch showed the world that the Samurai Blue could potentially mix it up with the best that the international stage had to offer. Only a year ago, the Japanese had garnered global acclaim, as they set the pulses racing in the Confederations Cup before being cruelly defeated 4-3 by Italy in the group stages.
Three comprehensive warm-up victories, notably a 3-1 success over surprise packages Costa Rica, added to the growing belief behind the current crop of Japanese stars were ready to take on a group containing sides with similar skill-sets in Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast – a modest pool in the grand scheme of things.
They started their World Cup campaign brightly enough, when Keisuke Honda drove a powerful, angled effort home against Ivory Coast, but the Elephants’ decision to bring on Didier Drogba in the second half proved to be the defining moment, as his introduction inspired Wilfried Bony and Gervinho to raise their game and net in a double-goal salvo midway through the second half.
The onus soon fell on their next clash with Greece, who were similarly facing the abyss after being thrashed by Colombia. Kostas Katsouranis’ first-half red card for two bookable offences surely acted as the precursor to a routine Japanese victory. However, the rock-solid Helenians did everything they could to close any gaps in the midfielder’s absence. Yoshito Okubo, a surprise selection due to his last cap coming in 2012, will forever be kicking himself after missing from barely a yard out.
The East Asians managed to salvage some pride in their last match against Colombia, embodied by Shinji Okazaki’s equaliser on the cusp of the interval. Again, their poor conversion rate in Brazil was highlighted, and by the time they had fired 24 shots at David Ospina, the South Americans, led by explosive substitute James Rodriguez, cantered to a breakaway 4-1 victory.
The age-old problem of Asian outfits returned – for all of their mobility, they were simply not aggressive enough. There is no denying the technical aptitude of the class of 2014, but the mentalities of these players crumbled under the pressure of expectation. With no personalities to grab the bull by the horns, Japan’s invention in the final third was criminally lacking.
The Coach – Alberto Zaccheroni
Thanks to the ex-Milan man’s 4-2-3-1 system, which placed great emphasis on the full-backs and three playmakers to interchange, Japan swept everyone before them in Asian qualifying to become the first nation – barring hosts Brazil – to book their place in the 2014 showpiece. However, his decision to play down expectations arguably backfired, as his team never looked like making an impact.
Player of the Tournament – Keisuke Honda
In similar vein to his performance at the 2010 edition, the Rossoneri attacking midfielder looked to have put Japan on their way with his blistering strike against Ivory Coast in their first match, but a no-show from his country against Greece meant his assist again Colombia was in vain, as their World Cup fate had already been decided by the footballing gods.
Memorable moment – Fans clean up
There may have been nothing to write home about in 90 minutes, but after Japan’s stalemate with Greece, their supporters – armed with blue refuse bags – proceeded to clean the stadium.
|15-Jun-14||Ivory Coast||2-1||Japan||Group C|
For a complete review of the 2014 World Cup, check out the next issue of Soccer Italia, written by the team at Football Italia and available on worldwide subscription.