Japan claimed an unadventurous 1-0 victory over a disappointing Cameroon side, with Kaisuke Honda’s goal enough to earn them their first World Cup win away from home soil. It was a deserved victory for a Japanese side who were extremely tight in defence, having taken full advantage of a rare chance to take the lead.
The game took a long time to get going, with Japan’s plan to nullify the Cameroonian attack preventing their African opponents from asserting any influence on the game. Moments after Eyong Enoh had finally brought the first save of the match, after 37 minutes with a low drive from 20 yards, Japan went straight down the other end and scored. Daisuke Matsui cut back on to his left foot and delivered an in-swinging cross which the unmarked Honda had time to bring down and finish at the far post.
Eric Choupo-Moting had a chance to get Cameroon back on level terms early in the second half but he curled wide after good work from Samuel Eto’o. The Cameroonian captain forced his way past several defenders on the right wing and burst into the box, cutting the ball back to the waiting Choupo-Moting who failed to work Eiji Kawashima. The woodwork was called into action at both ends in the last 10 minutes. First, Shinji Okazaki hit the outside of the post after Souleymanou Hamidou parried Makoto Hasebe’s effort, although the offside flag was raised against Okazaki. Minutes later, Stephane Mbia crashed the ball against the Japan bar from distance, the closest Cameroon had come to scoring. Cameroon pushed men forward late on but struggled to create anything of note, with Eiji remaining untested. The one time he had to make a save, deep in to stoppage time from Pierre Webo, the flag was raised for a foul by Eto’o.
Japan Coach Takeshi Okada made good use of his players’ ability to rigidly follow tactical instructions, man-marking their opponents all over the pitch and denying Cameroon any time or space to find their natural rhythm. The Japanese have struggled for goals in their warm up games and it was little surprise on this evidence, with the focus being on keeping a clean sheet rather than trying to open the scoring themselves. When Honda did give Japan the lead, it came moments after Cameroon had finally managed to register a shot on target. The game seemed to open up temporarily and to be fair to Honda, he took full advantage of a rare piece of Japanese adventure. If anyone was going to make the difference for Japan, it was the CSKA Moscow player, operating as the most advanced point of the team with forward Yoshito Okubo left underused on the left flank.
On one of the few occasions that Okubo made his way in to his natural residency of the penalty area, it led to Japan scoring. Stephane Mbia followed him inside instead of passing him on to centre-half Nicolas Nkoulou, leaving them both marking the same man as Honda ghosted free behind them to score. It was a poor piece of defending from Cameroon who had been otherwise untroubled. At the other end of the pitch, the Indomitable Lions were struggling to have any impact on the Japanese goal. Samuel Eto’o was surprisingly deployed on the right of attack, a role he has been playing at Inter Milan but one that minimised the effect of Cameroon’s most talented forward. It took until four minutes into the second half for him to have any bearing on the game, wriggling free down the side of the penalty area before cutting the ball back to Choupo-Moting who should have done better.
The Cameroonian urgency to make something happen was still absent in the second half, with their first substitution making them only marginally more attack minded. Achille Emana replaced holding midfielder Joel Matip but the move was in no way designed to free up Eto’o. Against such a well organised defensive unit, chances were proving few and far between for Cameroon. Having Eto’o in and around the area more would surely have optimised their hopes of finding a goal but Paul Le Guen stuck stubbornly to his plans. It took until Le Guen’s final role of the dice, a double change with 15 minutes left, for Eto’o to finally be deployed through the middle, partnering substitute Mohamadou Idrissou in a two-man attack with fellow newcomer Geremi on the right. It proved too little, too late, with Japanese centre-backs Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka ably resisting the Cameroonian bombardment.
Japan will need to find a cutting edge if they are to trouble the Netherlands or the defensively able Denmark, but they will prove a stiff test for both remaining opponents. As well as the excellent central defensive pairing, there were standout performances from captain Hasebe in midfield and the hardworking Honda. Okada has claimed his side could go as far as the semi-finals which is hard to support given their lack of attacking invention, but if the World Cup continues to follow the defence-first trend seen in most games so far, then Japan have as much chance as any.
Japan: Eiji Kawashima – Yuki Abe, Yuji Nakazawa, Tulio, Yuichi Komano – Yuto Nagatomo, Yoshito Okubo (Kisho Yano, 81), Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe (Inamoto, 88), Daisuke Matsui (Okazaki, 68) – Keisuke Honda.
Cameroon: Hamidou Souleymanou – Stephane Mbia, Sebastien Bassong, Nicolas Nkoulou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto – Jean Makoun (Geremi, 75), Enoh Eyong, Achille Webo, Joel Matip (Emana, 63) – Samuel Eto’o, Eric Choupo-Moting (Idrissou, 75)