YOKOHAMA — Wherever Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi goes, you can be guaranteed that lunacy will follow.
And so it was, as Philippe Troussier, the “mad scientist” (formerly the “white witch doctor”), continued to throw different solutions into the pot that is the Japan national soccer team in his attempt at creating some kind of footballing combustion.
Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw with Costa Rica at International Stadium Yokohama suggested that the mad scientist is still not sure what results certain elements and combinations will produce. The worry is, with just over six weeks to go before Japan’s first game in the World Cup, he’ll never find out.
He has, for example, been trying to convince Mitsuo Ogasawara that he has the ability to take over Hidetoshi Nakata’s central role in midfield and the Kashima star’s debut against Ukraine last month certainly suggested that was possible.
But Ogasawara was hauled off after just 25 minutes on Wednesday to be replaced by Hiroaki Morishima. Three minutes later, Troussier pulled off another Kashima player, Atsushi Yanagisawa, for another Cerezo Osaka player, Akinori Nishizawa.
Perhaps they were unsettled by the sight of Japan’s prime minister playing to the crowd before the game. Koizumi, never one to miss a chance to boost his flagging popularity, donned a pair of red and black adidas boots to greet the teams before “kicking in” the match ball. It was all rather vulgar. Such is Japanese politics.
Back on the field, Koizumi might as well have played, the first half was so dull. Costa Rica quickly showed they were no dummies and strung passes together well, while Japan found it difficult to get its act together.
Putting the blame on Ogasawara was extremely harsh. The Kashima star was making his first start for Japan and had shown a couple of neat offensive touches. But Troussier was not happy with his positioning.
“He didn’t do what I told him to do,” the Frenchman said after the match. “And the team didn’t have its shape. Ogasawara played too deep. That may be his natural way, but it was not good for us. The team was not working well. It’s not a question of his quality. It was my fault for picking him.”
The excuse for taking off Yanagisawa was just as strange.
“He was tired. Maybe he didn’t want to play today,” Troussier explained.
In truth, the whole team looked under par and the Japanese players hardly created anything in the half. Troussier could have taken almost anyone off, with the one exception of defensive midfielder Kazuyuki Toda.
Costa Rica had the best two chances with Rolando Fonseca volleying over after five minutes and Wilmer Lopez putting a magnificent chance inches high on the stroke of halftime.
In truth, Troussier’s two substitutions did improve the team. Morishima set up Yanagisawa with a chance within seconds of coming on, while Nishizawa improved as the game wore on.
“These two substitutions had the desired effect immediately,” Troussier said. “And that helped to bring the team back and establish its composure.”
The second half was a different matter entirely. Jubilo Iwata’s Takashi Fukunishi replaced the erratic Daisuke Ichikawa at the half and the Japan team looked, well, more like a team.
Morishima gave the attack that extra buzz while Alex, when he took the attacking option, provided some wicked crosses from the left. Up front, Takayuki Suzuki worked tirelessly and came up with Japan’s best chances in the half.
It was, however, Costa Rica that should have gone ahead first.
Eight minutes into the second half, some weak defending from the midfield allowed right back Harold Wallace to cut into the box. Koji Nakata once again showed his lack of confidence at defending, crudely sticking out his right leg for Wallace to fall over. Penalty.
Luckily, Ronald Gomez didn’t have his shooting boots on and and put the ball straight down the middle, allowing goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki to clear with his legs.
This gave Japan the boost it needed and, after that, it was largely in control. Suzuki, unlike his Kashima colleague Ogasawara given the chance to improve as the game wore on, started to rattle and pressure the Costa Rican defense.
Japan’s pressure finally paid off with 20 minutes left. Japan strung a series of good passes together, but Suzuki pushed the ball too far wide to Tomokazu Myojin on the right. The Kashiwa Reysol midfielder did well to wrap his foot around the ball and must have been amazed, as nearly 65,000 spectators were, to see the ball fly over the Costa Rican ‘keeper into the back of the net.
“Well, I didn’t really mean that,” the Kashiwa man said. “But I was certainly very happy to see the result.”
What a shame then that seven minutes later Myojin gave the ball away, allowing Gilberto Martinez to play the ball up to substitute forward Winston Parks of Udinese. Parks powered forward and virtually walked past the typically ineffectual Tsuneyasu Miyamoto before firing the ball home to level the scores.
Japan still looked the more likely to score and Nishizawa came closest with 10 minutes left when he rose to meet an Alex cross and saw his glancing header hit the post.
“I wanted to try some things out today and I think I learned several things about various individuals as well as the team as a unit,” Troussier commented.
“I still have to think about who to play and in what position,” the French manager confirmed. “Today we started poorly because we had some new players. The game didn’t go as I wanted it to, but the opposition were pretty strong and their players had good skills.”
Costa Rica’s manager Alexander Guimaraes was happy with the result.
“It was a good game, especially for the fans,” he said. “We started well but Japan got into the game well and made it tough for us. A draw was the right result.”
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