The Blue Samurai may well have lost to the Netherlands, but they will take massive heart in defeat. Japan,
Japan Coach Takeshi Okada named an unchanged side from the opening group fixture which saw them pick up their first ever World Cup win away from Japan, and from the outset appeared to be reeling with confidence off the back of their historic achievement. Talisman Keisuke Honda again played as a makeshift striker, in what was a very defensive formation, with Okada’s men aiming for an unlikely draw against one of the tournament favourites.
As they did in their previous outing, the Blue Samurai defended admirably in the first half, denying the Netherlands the chance to play their usual fluid ‘total football’. The Japan players never allowed the opposition time on the ball, meaning a lacklustre first half which suited Japan whose main aim was clearly a draw. The possession statistics were overwhelmingly in favour of the Dutch, but with few chances created thanks to the defensive tactical nous of Japan, the Dutch failed to create any clear cut chances at goal in the first half. In the rare occasions Japan did go forward, despite showing some neat skill on the wing through Yoshito Okubo, the threat was fairly minimal. It may not have been pretty football by either side, but Japan’s defensive tactics proved successful in the first half. As in the Cameroon fixture, the negative football proved effective, to balance Japan’s lack of attacking prowess.
Despite the miserly display from the Blue Samurai defence, the Dutch’s overwhelming possession majority was inviting pressure, and so it proved. With so much talk about the ‘Jabulani’ match ball, Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima may well have been unfortunate with the movement of the ball, but will no doubt be disappointed not to have saved Wesley Sneijder’s 25-yard effort. Kawashima misjudged the flight of the controversial ball, diving too far to his right, consequently deflecting the ball into the net. Whether or not the ball did move, Kawashima will know that in truth he should have been able to save it regardless. He now joins a list of many goalkeepers who have suffered gaffes at the tournament thus far, but he did well on two occasions after to redeem for his costly blunder. With the game opening up more as Japan pushed forward in search of an equaliser, the defence was left exposed with Dutch substitute Ibrahim Afellay breaking through the defence on two occasions, but Kawashima was quick off his line to deny him the chance to extend the Netherlands’ lead.
Late on in the game, Japan came desperately close to an unlikely equaliser but Shinji Okazaki couldn’t keep his volley down, spurning a great opportunity for the Blue Samurai, and despite spending most of the game on the back foot, it would not have flattered the Asian side after an impressive defensive display. Although Japan had showed little intent of going forward for most of the game, they once again proved that with a disciplined performance, you stand a chance against any opponent. The Oranje possess one of the most skilled sides going forward in the tournament with many creative players, yet Japan showed that by simply closing players down, you can quash most strong attacks. Once again the defensive duo of Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa proved solid in defence, and whilst the Blue Samurai will need to be strong defensively again, they will need to be more threatening going forward if they are to win their final group game against Denmark, giving Honda more service up front.
Japan now need to get something from their final group fixture against Denmark to retain hope of qualifying for the second round of the tournament. Whether Coach Okada will adopt a more attacking formation for their meeting with Denmark remains to be seen, but the battling defensive displays in their first two games, in which they were expected to lose both comprehensively, has put them in good stead, suggesting they have every chance in making the knockout stages for the first time since co-hosting the tournament in 2002.