Japan’s disappointment at losing to the Netherlands on Saturday was understandable, but Thursday’s final group game against Denmark was always going to be the one that mattered most. With only a point now needed to secure qualification for the knockout phase, Takeshi Okada’s side stands on the verge of an unlikely triumph.
Japan came tantalizingly close to snatching a late draw against the Dutch in Durban, but the points collected from its opening victory over Cameroon mean the 1-0 defeat can be written off as collateral damage. Denmark’s 2-1 win over the Africans later in the day turned out to be a far more significant result, and the Danes’ inability to score more means they must now beat Okada’s team to claim a place in the second round.
Going by evidence so far, that will not be easy.
Japan gave yet another disciplined, mature performance on Saturday, frustrating the Netherlands’ efforts to settle into their rhythm and strangling the supply line to striker Robin van Persie.
The resistance eventually faltered when Wesley Sneijder’s long-range effort got the better of Eiji Kawashima, but there is little doubt that Okada’s cautious tactics are reaping their reward.
Yuki Abe has superbly anchored a midfield that looked in danger of being swept away before the tournament began, while Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka are playing with calm assurance at the heart of a mean, well-drilled back four.
A superior goal difference allows Japan the luxury of continuing in the same vein against Denmark, but it is how Okada and his players react should they find themselves a goal down that will be the real test.
On Saturday the manager’s response to Sneijder’s intervention was to bring on Shunsuke Nakamura, a player whose starting place has been sacrificed in favor of dynamism, but whose vision and range of passing have no equal. The former Celtic midfielder added a different dimension to Japan’s play, and the subsequent appearance of strikers Shinji Okazaki and Keiji Tamada proves Okada has plenty of options in reserve.
First, however, the manager must concentrate on making sure his starting attackers find the target. The recent, sudden overhaul of the team has improved defensive strength, but it has also robbed the attack of much of its potency and left goals hard to come by.
Yoshito Okubo and Daisuke Matsui are a handful for any defender, but neither could ever be described as prolific. Converted midfielder Keisuke Honda scored the only goal of the campaign so far against Cameroon, but he is still feeling his way into an unfamiliar role as the lone striker and the jury is still out on how effective he can be there.
A scoreless draw in Rustenburg would be enough to progress, but that is not to say Japan should begin the match with that objective in mind. Ninety minutes is a long time to soak up pressure, and the final minutes against Cameroon showed just how precarious a one-goal advantage can be.
Japan’s defense has proved it can handle the big occasion. Now it is time for the attack to do the same.