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Failure to be clutch in crunch sealed Japan’s fate in opener

by James Mulligan

BONN — When it came to the crunch, Guus Hiddink got it right and Zico got it woefully wrong.

News photoJapan’s Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (left), Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (center) and Juji Nakazawa walk off the pitch following their 3-1 loss to Australia in a World Cup Group F match on Monday in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Japan’s capitulation at the hands of Australia boiled down to coach Hiddink’s brave decision to go for broke by throwing on two extra strikers as the Aussies trailed to Shunsuke Nakamura’s contentious first-half opener.

It paid off in spectacular style as Tim Cahill came off the bench to crash in two late goals, and fellow sub John Aloisi added another as Australia pulled of an astonishing 3-1 victory over Japan in their Group F opener in Kaiserslautern.

At the back of a coach’s mind when making substitutions in a high-stakes match is what the post-match reaction will be if his tactics backfire.

They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

But what sets apart a great coach is his willingness to make these big decisions and stick by them.

It paid off for Hiddink on Monday afternoon.

The Dutchman is being hailed a “tactical genius” for withdrawing defender Craig Moore and midfielders Luke Wilkshire and Marco Bresciano for Joshua Kennedy, Cahill and Aloisi — and rightly so.

Zico, on the other hand, chose to do next to nothing. As the Boys in Blue hung on by a thread to their 1-0 lead, some of the players were visibly wilting in the punishing heat.

Forward Atsushi Yanagisawa had run himself into the ground by the hour mark, but it took nearly 20 more minutes before Zico replaced him with midfielder Shinji Ono.

The late switch, though, was too little, too late and it simply acted as a harbinger of the Aussie’s late goal glut.

Captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto admitted afterward that Japan simply ran out of steam by the 80-minute mark.

Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi backed up his skipper’s comments.

“Our stamina levels dropped toward the end and we were second to the ball every time. Australia got a second wind and we just didn’t have anything left to keep them at bay,”‘ Kawaguchi said.

Zico asserted that Japan lost because of mistakes made and not because of the heat, but the mistakes only came about as the soaring temperature took its toll on the Japanese.

With Japan 1-0 ahead, Zico needed to make some big decisions: Exhausted players needed to be replaced earlier, while the defense needed to be bolstered.

He failed to make these calls, instead crossing his fingers and hoping Japan would hold on. His inaction backfired spectacularly.

Japan’s World Cup dreams may not be shattered, but some extremely large cracks have appeared as attention now turns to the Boys in Blue’s game against Croatia on June 18 in Nuremberg.

Zico’s redemption is more likely against the Croats than the five-time champion Brazilians, who Japan faces in Dortmund on June 22.

“The game against Croatia is now decisive,” Zico said. “We have to get three points.”