Japan facing early exit if mistakes go unheeded against Greece

Japan must beat Greece on Thursday to stand any realistic chance of surviving at the World Cup, but a repeat of Saturday’s performance in a frustrating defeat to Cote d’Ivoire will bring nothing but an early ticket home.

Japan got its fifth straight World Cup campaign off to the worst possible start at the weekend, taking a 16th-minute lead over Cote d’Ivoire through Keisuke Honda only to throw it away in a second-half horror show that handed the Africans a 2-1 victory.

What was most galling about Japan’s defeat was the fact that the team played nothing like its usual self. After months of pledging that Japan would forget about the opposition and stick to its own game in Brazil, manager Alberto Zaccheroni saw his side’s hard-pressing, proactive style grind to a standstill.

“It’s not a shock that we lost,” Honda was quoted as saying on Tuesday. “The thing that shocks me is that we lost because we couldn’t play to our strengths.

“Possession is our strength and we need to keep hold of the ball and not give it away too easily. Putting pressure on our opponents straightaway after losing the ball is our philosophy. In the last game, we lost the ball too easily and that meant we spent a lot of energy trying to get it back.”

Adding to Japan’s problems were humid conditions and poor performances from key players like Shinji Kagawa, while a number of questionable tactical decisions from Zaccheroni also came under scrutiny.

The Italian’s substitution of captain Makoto Hasebe for 34-year-old Yasuhito Endo after only 54 minutes — 10 minutes before Cote d’Ivoire’s first goal — came in for particular criticism, while a series of tactical reshuffles late in the game failed to make an impact.

“After Endo came on, (forward Yoshito) Okubo was told to get ready to come on too,” former Japan striker Shoji Jo wrote in Monday’s Sports Nippon. “But then Zaccheroni started arguing with one of his coaches, and during that time Cote d’Ivoire turned the game around and Okubo didn’t come on until 22 minutes into the second half.

“It felt like there was panic on the bench.”

Both Zaccheroni and his players seemed unable to comprehend what had gone wrong in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, but they had better find a solution quickly if they want to prolong their stay in Brazil.

“Against Cote d’Ivoire the team couldn’t express itself, but just because you do manage to express yourself it doesn’t then mean that it’s OK to lose,” Japan’s 2010 World Cup manager, Takeshi Okada, wrote in Monday’s Nikkan Sports. “Playing at the World Cup isn’t a simple matter of living and dying by your philosophy.

“You have to think about what you can do to beat Greece now. If your physical condition isn’t good, you have to find an appropriate way to play that works.”

Four years ago in South Africa, Okada did just that. A run of bad results heading into the tournament prompted him to reboot Japan’s game plan on the eve of the finals, imposing a pragmatic, defensive style that unexpectedly took the team into the second round.

Whether Zaccheroni opts for similarly drastic changes in his tactics and personnel to face Greece remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure — there is no room for mistakes now.

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