Japan Camp Focus – Blue Samurai play to their strengths

Going into the World Cup, it seemed that all the odds were against Japan even winning a game in their group. Last year, they were the very first team to qualify for the World Cup, however, it then all went horribly wrong for the Blue Samurai, with four defeats from their five World Cup warm up games and defeat to rivals South Korea earlier this year, one of the most embarrassing results in Japan’s football history.

So few would have backed them to get anything out of their Group E opener against Africa’s most successful World Cup side in Cameroon, but against all odds, Takeshi Okada’s men won their first ever World Cup match on foreign soil. Although some pundits labelled it negative football by Japan you can’t argue with its effectiveness, as Japan showed how if you are a well-disciplined unit you stand a chance. If Japan are to progress to the knock-out stages of the competition, they will need to follow the same model that saw them past Cameroon on Monday. Although their next opponents in Group E, the Netherlands, will not be as laid back as Cameroon were, meaning that the Japanese defence will have to be on the very top of their game to avoid a heavy defeat. Last time out, Japan’s centre-half duo, captain Yuji Nakazawa and Brazilian born Marcus Tulio Tanaka, put in a heroic display late on to reduce Cameroon to long range efforts, allowing them no time on the ball and were well-drilled, ensuring they were never caught out of position. A repeat will be crucial if they are to get anything out of the Dutch in their second group fixture on Saturday in Durban.

Keisuke Honda, who played in Holland for a couple of years before his big money move to Russian side CSKA Moscow, proved his worth to the team on Monday with a man-of-the-match performance. Honda, who was billed as Japan’s biggest prospect, showed that he didn’t just have the quality going forward, but impressed with his work-load. Playing as a lone striker in a bid to boost Japan’s goal shy attack, Honda proved his versatility leading the line well. The twenty-four-year-old, who has played just fifteen games for the Blue Samurai, may not have much experience on the international scene, but has already proven himself to be Japan’s talisman. With the Dutch team possessing a wealth of creative players in their side, pressure will be on Honda to make the most of any chances he has. As impressive as Honda was for the Blue Samurai and the defence solid, Japan struggled to keep hold of the ball, with many passes going astray. As a result they were rarely able to get the ball forward to makeshift striker Honda who was feeding off scraps. Were Okada’s men to give possession away quite so cheaply to the Dutch, they will no doubt be punished by much stronger opposition than Cameroon, although they will take heart from the Netherlands’ average performance in their opening victory over Denmark.

Meanwhile the omission of former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura raised many eyebrows amongst the Japanese fans and media. Nakamura, renowned for his set-piece skills, was tipped to be Japan’s star man for their fourth consecutive World Cup, but the midfielder was among the unused substitutes for their opening fixture. Okada may well be tempted to recall the experienced thirty-one-year-old, who has just short of a ton of caps for the Asian side. The side lacked an experienced playmaker like Nakamura and with little service for Honda upfront, the Blue Samurai mustered only three shots at goal all game without winning a single corner. Nakamura has been beset by fitness worries leading into the World Cup, and after a difficult six month spell with Spanish side Espanyol, returned to Japan to play for the Yokohama Marinos and has since struggled to regain form. But Nakamura’s dead ball threat could be key if Japan are to continue with their defensive minded tactics.

Although Japan now have a realistic chance of progressing to the second round, where they could potentially face World Cup holders Italy, it is important the team do not get carried away with two difficult games facing them. Although the impossible now looks a lot more possible.

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