“Don’t believe the hype” – a lesson often adhered to only in hindsight. Japan came into this tournament with a swell of fans expecting free flowing high scoring football. Two weeks later and the Samurai Blue exit with only one point to their name and scoring a poultry two goals along the way, finally being put to bed with a 4-1 battering from group winners Colombia.
This may not only be the end of the World Cup for the Japanese, it could also see a dramatic change in personnel. Some players who were coming to the end of their international careers could hand in their retirements in the coming weeks, with a possibility of pressure to sack manager Alberto Zaccheroni becoming fatal in the coming days after three clueless performances out in Brazil.
Zaccheroni, who had been swept along with the success of Japan in the last 12 months continued to rely on the same systems and players that had served him so well to come up with the goods, each time they disappointed. Each match had its weak points, the Colombia encounter in particular highlighting which areas of the squad that need restructuring.
Yasuyuki Konno, who had been replaced initially in the first match of the tournament by promising Masato Morishige, was inexplicably returned to fold against Greece and then again for the Colombia match. His robust, maximum effort style of defending was readily complimented by Zaccheroni but his performances had dipped drastically in the last few months, a stark contrast to the soaring form of young Morishige.
Konno’s inadequate defending continued as he foolishly gave away an early penalty for Colombia’s opener, clattering through Adrian Ramos as the rangey striker was heading away from goal. Colombia’s game plan was working well, already guaranteed a place in the last 16 and playing a weakened side they were content to hit Japan on the counter, a tactic that reaped early rewards.
Japan as they did against Greece dominated possession in between the deadly counter attacks of the Colombians but couldn’t find a way through to either tee up strikers Okubo and Okazaki or to create a meaningful chance from a set play. Keisuke Honda who admittedly had a hand in both Japan’s goals in Brazil has not been up to the standards he’s set himself in the last few years. When Japan needed to look to their talisman he was usually found wanting.
Japan’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time was untypical of the possession based style they’ve adopted, Okazaki nodding home to emulate some of his excellent club form that has been desperately missing during this World Cup. This set Japan on their way into half time knowing that it was now in their hands to qualify with Greece holding Ivory Coast in Fortaleza.
All this was immaterial however, as Japan continued their frustrating and ultimately inadequate performance after the break. They lived up to a few pre-World Cup previews which had heaped praise on their midfield but worried where the goals would come from, and at the other end who would stop the goals. As had been the story of the tournament, Japan looked in control in possession but crumbled spectacularly on the counter.
Jackson Martinez along with substitute James Rodriguez pulled the Japanese defence from pillar to post on multiple occasions in the second half. Uchida was continually tempted inside creating space for Martinez to bag a brace to end Japan’s comeback. The usually elegant and unflustered Maya Yoshida had twisted blood by the end of the match as Rodriguez rounded off the game with Colombia’s fourth, neatly chipping over the onrushing Kawashima.
This will have come as little surprise to those who had witnessed Japan’s preparations, their defensive unit has been far from water tight since Zaccheroni took over. However, the attacking side of their game was naively seen as a gimme. The “we’ll score one more than you” attitude never really manifested itself leaving the Japanese looking out of ideas when circulating possession just outside the opposition area.
The constant tinkering of the attacking personnel didn’t ever come to fruition as Zaccheroni mainly experimented with Osako and Okubo in the centre forward position without either really paying dividends. The criminal under usage of Hiroshi Kiyotake (who only made one substitute appearance in the tournament) and Yoichiro Kakitani, (who had been in great scoring form internationally prior to the tournament) are options that Zaccheroni may look back on as wasted opportunities.
Zaccheroni has come out today to confirm that he will assess his position with the JFA, so a decision on his future is likely in the coming days. A decision is needed quickly as Japan along with their Asian compatriots have a relatively short space of time before they return to tournament football in Ausralia’s Asian Cup. It remains to be seen how many of the squad and management team will again be present come their kick off against Palestine in January.
Player ratings (/5)
Eiji Kawashima – 3/5 – Not at fault for any of the goals, generally looked solid.
Atsuto Uchida – 2/5 – Made decent attacking runs but looked all over the place defensively.
Maya Yoshida – 2/5 –One of his weakest games. His positioning cost Japan a couple of the Colombian goals.
Yasuyuki Konno – 2/5 – Didn’t look solid at all, lacked composure in giving away the penalty early on.
Yuto Nagatomo – 3/5 – Offered support in attack but often passed too much instead of taking on the opposing full back.
Makoto Hasebe – 3/5 – Uneventful match, but kept up possession from deep.
Toshihiro Aoyama – 2/5 – Didn’t impress sufficiently in his first start. Failed to break into the attacking third enough.
Shinji Okazaki – 3/5 – Took his goal well but largely was frustrated in attack.
Keisuke Honda – 2/5 – Assisted Okazaki’s goal but remained absent for much of the 90 minutes.
Shinji Kagawa – 2/5 – Played too simply and failed to link up with his fellow attackers around Colombia’s box.
Yoshito Okubo – 3/5 – One of the best players on the night. Tried his best to create space and have shots on goal.
Hotaru Yamaguchi – 3/5 – Kept possession well but lacked impetus to create attacks.
Yoichiro Kakitani – 2/5 – Movement was good but didn’t get into enough scoring positions.
Hiroshi Kiyotake – N/A – Only given a 5 minute cameo, his only appearance of the tournament.