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Bored over in Cordoba

by Alastair Himmer

After “Le Flop” in Paris in March, Japan gave us “El Yawno” in Cordoba on Wednesday, holding Spain scoreless for 92 minutes until a moment of madness from Koji Nakata led to an injury-time winner from substitute Ruben Baraja.

Japan coach Philippe Troussier insisted afterward that his side’s dogged, if unspectacular, performance at Nuevo Arcangel Stadium has given him a “platform to build on” for next year’s Korea-Japan World Cup. Probably so, but with one or two reservations.

Common sense plainly dictated that the Japanese would have to batten down the hatches and show more resilience against Spain after their game plan went garlic-shaped in the 5-0 humiliation by France.

With Spain coming off a 2-1 victory over the world champions last month, Troussier challenged his players to “stand up and be counted,” while the no-nonsense Frenchman made a number of key changes to his squad, most of which paid off.

Goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki and defender Naoki Matsuda were reduced to bench warmers in Cordoba, while Yokohama playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura failed even to make the squad after his Paris nightmare. (Clearly Troussier has been reading “The Bald Truth” over his morning croissants.)

With the three biggest culprits for the France debacle gone, Japan looked more solid, especially on the left of midfield, where Toshihiro Hattori — more used to playing on the left of Japan’s back three — repeatedly halted Spain’s progress down the right flank.

Yokohama F. Marinos keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, the hero of Japan’s 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the final of the Asian Cup last October, showed his cojones with a string of important saves from Real Madrid striker Raul Gonzalez as Spain attacked relentlessly in the first half.

Arguably, though, it was Ryuzo Morioka, restored to his best position in the center of the Japanese back line, who did most to frustrate Spain as the Shimizu S-Pulse defender covered tirelessly for the disappointing (Koji) Nakata.

Has Troussier been chatting to his compatriot Gerard Houllier? At times, seeing Japan pull 11 players behind the ball was like watching Liverpool bore Barcelona to death in the semifinals of the UEFA Cup.

Effective maybe, but “horrible” to watch (as Dutch legend Johan Cruyff labeled Liverpool), although Troussier made no excuses for Japan’s tactics after last week’s game.

“One or two of the players are upset about the result, but I was encouraged by the way they battled. That spirit gives me promise for the future,” said Troussier (or was it Houllier after the 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp?).

There was Naohiro “Teflon” Takahara, asked to keep possession as a lone striker, but unfortunately rather more non-stick than Liverpool’s Emile Heskey on the few occasions that the ball did cross the halfway line.

Meanwhile, Hattori, trying his hardest to be like German international Christian Ziege (“Ve haf vays of stopping you, ja? Here, haf an elbow in ze face!”), was another who looked like he has been following Liverpool’s progress this season with interest.

But let’s talk hairdos. Surely Hiroshima defender Kenichi Uemura won his first cap because Troussier mistook him for Verdy’s Yuji Nakazawa, who, after all, is a Japan regular, strong in the air, big in the hair and a general good egg.

Troussier must have spotted Uemura’s big new barnet* in the team meeting before the game and said: “You up for it, Yuji?”

Uemura spots an opening and answers, “Oui, mon chef,” and, voila, he’s a starter.

Thank goodness Kashima forward Tomoyuki Hirase, who previously owned the national side’s silliest hairdo, is no longer thrilling us with his Bozo the Clown cameos. It could have been Paris all over again.

(Bearing this funky hair thing in mind, the Japan Football Association should probably do everything in its power to keep new Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — “a dead ringer for Richard Gere squinting into the sun,” according to a colleague of mine — away from Troussier, who would probably want to try him at right-back.)

Nothing silly about Junichi Inamoto’s hairstyle, though. Facing the chop himself after a sub-par game against France, the Gamba Osaka tyro earned a reprieve only when Shimizu enforcer Kazuyuki Toda came down with a spot of “Cordoba Belly” just prior to kickoff.

Inamoto shielded the back three expertly and picked up much of the slack for Teruyoshi Ito, whose lightweight performance all but negated Japan’s numerical advantage in midfield. Surely, Tomokazu Myojin must return to the first 11 in Ito’s place?

AS Roma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, reportedly a 12 million British pound target of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, again looked Japan’s most dangerous player in an advanced midfield role, despite the restrictions imposed by the team’s tactics.

Nothing wrong with the effort shown by Hiroshi Nanami or new boy Yasuhiro Hato at right wing-back either, but, whichever way you dice it, Koji Nakata did his level best to avoid getting picked again by Troussier.

Even before his kamikaze clearance was intercepted by Pedro Munitis in the third minute of stoppage time, Nakata had committed a litany of howlers, especially in the first half as he panicked whenever Valencia captain Gaizka Mendieta approached.

With the Kashima Antlers defender seemingly hell-bent on setting a world record for the number of misplaced passes in one match, Troussier will be thanking his lucky stars that Hattori and Morioka were on hand to snuff out the resulting danger — at least, until the 93rd minute.

Nakazawa, already with reason to be miffed at not starting in the absence of Matsuda, must now be pondering a trip to the hairdresser in order to get a start for Japan.

I can sort that mop out for you, Yuji.

*barnet, barnet fair — cockney rhyming slang for hair

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