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Comeback win lifts confidence as Japan prepares for Brazil

by Andrew Mckirdy

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni was looking for improvement in his players’ physical condition in Monday’s friendly against Costa Rica, but the mental boost they received from their 3-1 win could turn out to be even more important.

Japan came from behind to beat the Central Americans after a rousing second-half performance, with substitute Yasuhito Endo equalizing before Shinji Kagawa put the Asian champions ahead in the 80th minute and Yoichiro Kakitani added a third in the dying stages.

Had Costa Rica taken a 2-0 lead when Japan was reeling at the start of the second half, the effect on morale just over week before the World Cup could have been disastrous. Instead Japan can look toward Brazil knowing it can turn a game around when things are not going according to plan, with concrete evidence that Zaccheroni’s attacking tactics are working.

“Physically the players were pretty much as I expected, but mentally they went out with a positive attitude, seized the initiative and played the way we wanted,” said the manager. “Of course us taking the initiative played to Costa Rica’s strengths, but we weren’t afraid to do that.”

Goals for Kagawa, who has endured a rough season at Manchester United, and Kakitani, who has scored just once in the J. League this year with Cerezo Osaka, will have lifted individual spirits as well as collective confidence.

But that is not to say that Monday’s win was flawless. Japan wasted numerous chances to break the deadlock in the first half, and if Zaccheroni’s side finds itself conceding the first goal in Brazil, Group C opponents Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia are unlikely to be as forgiving as Costa Rica.

“If this was Cote d’Ivoire and Japan was pressing in search of an equalizer, there’s a good chance they would have conceded another on the counterattack,” former Japan striker Masayuki Okano wrote in Wednesday’s Nikkan Sports.

“They say that (Cote d’Ivoire striker) Gervinho would be able to beat Usain Bolt in a race if they both had a ball at their feet.”

Japan’s defensive woes are hardly new, but the sluggish current form of team talisman Keisuke Honda is a disturbing development. Zaccheroni is right when he insists that being ready for the team’s World Cup opener against the Ivorians on June 14 is all that matters, but Honda’s leaden touch and lack of sharpness must surely worry the manager.

“Make no mistake, Zaccheroni thinks of Honda as the team’s main pivot,” wrote former Japan striker Takafumi Ogura in Wednesday’s Sports Nippon. “But if these concerns do not go away and winning is the priority, I think there’s a chance he might drop him.”

Reading too much into pre-tournament friendlies is, of course, a fool’s game. Japan looked like world-beaters in a 2-2 draw with Germany in 2006 only to crash and burn when the tournament started, while progress to the knockout phase in 2010 was preceded by a run of four straight losses and a draw with Zimbabwe.

Clearly Japan is not yet ready, but the seeds of something substantial were there for all to see in the win over Costa Rica.

Zaccheroni must make sure he uses the next week wisely.