RECIFE, BRAZIL – Two goals in quick succession in the second half by Cote d’Ivoire shattered Japan’s hopes of victory as the team lost 2-1 in its opening World Cup match on Saturday, leaving Alberto Zaccheroni’s men with an uphill task to advance to the knockout phase.
Keisuke Honda broke the deadlock on 16 minutes, scoring in Japan’s opening game of the finals for the second tournament in a row, but as the Asian champions tired, Cote d’Ivoire, inspired by the introduction of talismanic striker Didier Drogba, struck back twice midway through the second half, through Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, to silence a pro-Japan crowd at Arena Pernambuco.
Cote d’Ivoire joined Colombia on three points after the South Americans whipped Greece 3-0 earlier in the day.
Both of Cote d’Ivoire’s goals came from identical moves, with Serge Aurier finding space on the right flank to cross and set up headers for Swansea City striker Bony and Roma forward Gervinho moments after Drogba had entered the fray.
“We started out quite well and were dynamic enough but Cote d’Ivoire grew in intensity and proved to be an excellent team and performed better than we did,” shrugged Zaccheroni.
“I have to say I think Cote d’Ivoire won the match on the flanks. I think we allowed them too much space to come into the box. We were way too slow,” the coach added.
Fit-again captain Makoto Hasebe returned to Samurai Blue’s lineup after missing the tournament warmup wins over Costa Rica and Zambia in Florida, while Masato Morishige was given the nod to partner Maya Yoshida in central defense at the expense of Yasuyuki Konno.
With chants of “Nippon, Nippon” ringing around the stadium as the match kicked off, Japan had the Brazilian crowd behind it, just as it did in a 4-3 defeat to Italy at the Confederations Cup here last year.
Zaccheroni’s side got a scare in the sixth minute as Shinji Kagawa lost possession in midfield and Bony fired a shot just wide of the post after it took a deflection off Morishige.
But Japan took the lead with a stunning effort from Honda, the driving force in the team’s run to the last 16 in South Africa in 2010 and scorer in its opening 1-0 win over Cameroon.Yuto Nagatomo took a return pass from Kagawa after a throw-in and picked out Honda, who took the ball on his right foot and rifled in with his left to beat Boubacar Barry at his near post.
Atsuto Uchida, one of a handful of players on the team that have had recent injury troubles, nearly made it 2-0 with a shot that Barry blocked, while the backline defended valiantly against a flurry of attacks from the Ivorians.
Maya Yoshida did well to charge down a shot from Gervinho and Salomon Kalou sent a free header wide before Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima got down well to cut out a dangerous low cross from Aurier.
Cote d’Ivoire continued to press after the break and two minutes after former Chelsea favorite Drogba had come on for Die Serey, the Elephants equalized with a flying header from Bony after a cross from Aurier in the 64th minute.
Japan was still reeling from that blow when the Ivorians scored a second from a similar move in the 66th, Aurier again the provider as Gervinho headed just inside Kawashima’s near post.
Kawashima did well to beat away a Drogba free kick with eight minutes left but Japan’s raft of second-half substitutions proved ineffective and it never looked like finding a way back into the game.
“I thought we would win tonight and the team would play as it normally does,” said Zaccheroni. “Tonight we were not able to perform as normal. Now we really have to take stock of the situation, set things back in motion and try to understand what it was that went wrong so that we can work out what we have to do in the next two games.”
Hasebe added: “It wasn’t that they were really good, we just couldn’t play our game on the pitch. We have four days until our next game, so we’re going to do our best to prepare.”
Cote d’Ivoire coach Sabri Lamouchi admitted that the 36-year-old Drogba, who currently plays for Galatasaray in Turkey, had changed the complexion of the game.
“For us, it was really important to make a good start to this tournament. To have a player like Didier Drogba in your squad, whether he starts or is a substitute, changes a game,” said Lamouchi.
“The players are very happy with the victory, but we haven’t qualified yet.”