Soccer / World Cup | SOCCER SCENE

Drab draw leaves Japan hoping for miracles

“Believe in miracles,” ran the headline of one sports newspaper after Japan’s 0-0 draw with Greece left its World Cup hopes hanging by a thread, but simply salvaging pride from a bitterly disappointing campaign looks a more realistic ambition.

Japan failed to take advantage of a 38th-minute red card for Greek captain Konstantinos Katsouranis in its second match of the tournament on Thursday, struggling to make an impact as Greece held on for a point that took the Asian champions’ World Cup destiny out of their own hands.

Japan can qualify for the second round only by beating Colombia in Cuiaba on Tuesday and hoping that the outcome of Greece’s match against Cote d’Ivoire works in its favor. But if the evidence of two dismal performances in Brazil so far is anything to go by, the Samurai Blue may as well pack their bags now.

“All the other teams apart from Japan look great,” wrote critic Sergio Echigo in Saturday’s Nikkan Sports. “They run, they give everything to win the ball and try to score. It’s heartening to watch.

“All Japan do is pass, pass, pass, and it makes me angry. They keep saying ‘it’s our style of football,’ but this shows that it’s not working.”

Japan at least began Thursday’s match promisingly enough, showing far greater purpose than in last Saturday’s meek 2-1 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire. By the end, however, Alberto Zaccheroni’s team had run out of ideas, repeating the same predictable patterns and playing into the hands of a Greek side that has built its reputation on defensive organization.

“The attack was one-dimensional right until the end,” wrote former Japan striker Nobuhiro Takeda in Friday evening’s Tokyo Sports. “They didn’t have enough ideas in front of goal.

“They were playing all-out direct football by the end, but I have my reservations about that given that they’ve never played that way before. Previously when they’ve needed a goal but didn’t score, you could at least imagine them getting one. Today they just never looked like scoring.”

None of this paints a flattering picture of Zaccheroni, whose air of calm authority has quickly unraveled and exposed a manager who appears to have lost his nerve on the big occasion.

“The thing that makes me most uneasy looking ahead to the Colombia game is Zaccheroni’s leadership,” wrote former Japan striker Kunishige Kamamoto in Saturday’s Sankei Sports. “Since the tournament started he has begun to look very flustered. He might have achieved things with Italian clubs in the past, but as a national team manager the cracks are beginning to appear.”

For all the talk of beating Colombia and qualifying for the second round, an early exit for Japan is surely the most likely outcome now. The Colombians will start as heavy favorites having taken two wins from their two games so far, and their phenomenal supporters will turn the Arena Pantanal into a virtual home ground.

Japan’s real challenge is not to reach the second round but to salvage some dignity. Zaccheroni and his players have talked for months about the need to express themselves in Brazil, but so far the team has played like a ghost of its former self.

The importance of making an impression goes beyond just this tournament. Japan needs to know that there is hope for the future, and a positive performance against Colombia would go a long way toward restoring confidence.

How far that takes Japan at the 2014 World Cup remains to be seen, but Zaccheroni must at least make sure his team bows out with its pride intact.

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