Japan’s hard-boiled victory over Cameroon on Monday was never going to win Takeshi Okada’s side any new friends, but confidence, respect and three crucial points are a far more valuable reward.
After three weeks in which Japan’s chances of securing a first-ever World Cup win on foreign soil looked more remote than ever, the picture has now changed completely. Instead of facing the Netherlands on Saturday with the threat of elimination hanging over their heads, Okada’s men do so knowing victory will all but clinch their place in the second round.
Never has one win been so gratefully timed. A string of wretched results going into the tournament suggested Japan would be lucky to escape South Africa with its dignity intact, but the players now have concrete proof of their capabilities.
Cameroon, for its part, should have done better. Samuel Eto’o was a virtual spectator, Alex Song was badly missed in midfield, and the defense let itself down horribly by leaving Keisuke Honda unmarked for the winning goal.
But that should not temper praise for a Japan side that recognized its limitations, stuck to the task and did what was necessary. Okada’s reaction to Honda’s goal betrayed the pressure that has been building on his shoulders, but the manager deserves credit for his approach to the match.
It has come late, but much has changed over the past three weeks. After a year of tinkering with the lineup that qualified for the World Cup, Okada suddenly delved into root-and-branch reform on arrival at the team’s pre-tournament camp in Switzerland.
Star player Shunsuke Nakamura found himself axed along with right back Atsuto Uchida, striker Shinji Okazaki and goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki; Yuki Abe was added as a defensive midfielder, and Makoto Hasebe took over the captain’s armband from Yuji Nakazawa. The intricate passing game that had become Japan’s hallmark was replaced with smash-and-grab counterattacking, and Honda — a midfielder — found himself redeployed as the team’s lone striker.
The changes could easily have blown up in Okada’s face, but after the many painful lessons suffered this year, it was a risk worth taking. The revamped formation demanded hard work, discipline and concentration, and Okada was rewarded with exactly that.
Nakazawa gave his best performance in ages keeping Eto’o subdued at the back, while Marcus Tulio Tanaka reined in his attacking impulses in a mature performance beside him. Eiji Kawashima justified his selection ahead of Narazaki in goal, while the rest of the team all played their part in making sure the back door stayed shut.
Whether more of the same will work against the Netherlands is another matter, and Okada will have to be more adventurous if Japan finds itself a goal down to a team that attacks with considerably more incision than Cameroon.
Starting with a win, however, is priceless. Three points means defeat to the Dutch could be swallowed with perspective, while the pressure is now firmly on Cameroon and Denmark.
After Monday’s performance, that is a luxury Japan deserves.