Japan’s humbling defeat to Brazil in the opening game of the Confederations Cup last weekend was a bitter pill to swallow, but that does not mean Alberto Zaccheroni’s side cannot get its campaign back on track against Italy on Wednesday.
Brazil brushed the Asian champions aside 3-0 in Brasilia on Saturday in a match largely as one-sided as the score suggests, prompting an intense bout of soul-searching from a team beaten 4-0 by the same opponent in a friendly in October last year.
“This is beyond disappointing,” said left back Yuto Nagatomo. “Nothing has changed. The gap is only widening, if anything. At least last time I thought we actually tried to challenge them.”
Nagatomo’s frustration was understandable. Conceding a third-minute goal from Neymar put Japan on the back foot from the outset, with Brazil’s superior power, speed and ability denying the visitors a way back into the match over a chastening 90 minutes.
Zaccheroni lamented that his team could only perform at “50 percent of our potential,” but the manager can at least take heart from the fact that his players have room to improve against Italy. A repeat of the sluggish movement and timid approach that sabotaged Saturday’s effort would surely consign Japan to an early exit from the tournament, but after making such impressive progress over the three years of Zaccheroni’s reign, descending into self-doubt after one dispiriting performance would be damagingly counterproductive.
“Today’s game was a total defeat,” said forward Keisuke Honda. “This is our real level.”
Managing expectations is never simple when it comes to Japan’s national team, but it is perhaps fair to say that the rhetoric has strayed into bombastic territory in recent months. Nagatomo and Shinji Kagawa have both spoken of winning the 2014 World Cup, while the hype that surrounded Japan becoming the first team to reach next summer’s tournament made light of the fact that the rest of the world is still only midway through its various qualifying campaigns.
In truth, Japan has looked distinctly average throughout 2013, with the luck that carried it to a narrow win over Oman last November wearing off in a 2-1 loss to Jordan in March. Zaccheroni’s side then lost to Bulgaria before making hard work of games against Australia and Iraq, and in the circumstances Saturday’s defeat to Brazil was not entirely unexpected.
But while Japan may not be able to count itself among the world’s best just yet, that is not to say the team suddenly finds itself on the scrap heap either. Victory over Italy is certainly achievable despite the Azzurri’s impressive 2-1 opening win over Mexico, and Zaccheroni has enough talent, experience and technique at his disposal to show the world that Saturday’s defeat was not a true reflection of his side’s capabilities.
“We have to play the game the way that we want to,” Kagawa said earlier this week. “The Brazil game finished without us being able to show or even try to show anything we could do. Against Italy we should have more chances to attack.”
Several players have spoken in the buildup to the match about trying to provoke a reaction from combustible Italian striker Mario Balotelli, but they would do better to heed Kagawa’s advice and concentrate on their own game after coming up short against Brazil.
Regardless of Wednesday’s result, leaving the pitch without regrets must be the main aim.