Japan today face Denmark in what is the Blue Samurai’s biggest game since their only ever appearance in the first knockout stage of the World Cup since co-hosting the tournament in 2002, where they lost to eventual third placed Turkey by a solitary goal.
They can now make records by reaching the second round on foreign soil for the first time in the nation’s football history, a feat that nobody expected before the tournament began with the team in turmoil and in their worst spell of form for twelve years. Although the team is still struggling in attack, the miserly defence has seen them within touching distance of the knockout stage. After all the pre-tournament pessimism amongst the Japanese fans and media, despite being the vastly lowest ranked side in their group with a squad that frankly doesn’t compare to their group counterparts, they played to their defensive strengths – like most Asian sides have done in this tournament this year – and have undoubtedly punched above their weight. Even if Japan were to lose against Denmark and fail to progress, they will return to Asia with their heads held high if they were to finish above Cameroon – a side that boasts world class talent in Samuel Eto’o and several other big name Premier League stars.
Their match against Denmark will have a play-off feel to it, with winner takes all – although the draw would see the Blue Samurai progress. Japan Coach Takeshi Okada is widely expected to name an unchanged side to that which narrowly lost to the Netherlands last Saturday, in a defensive formation. Playing for the draw could be a dangerous strategy, although with Japan lacking in attacking prowess, Okada will have little choice other than to retain the defensive tactics that has seen Japan solid at the back, although not the prettiest to watch.
The main concern for Japan is clear – where will the goals come from should the Danes take the lead. Their solitary goal thus far came in their historic victory over Cameroon in their first group game through makeshift striker Keisuke Honda – moved from midfield in a bid to boost the Blue Samurai’s goal-shy attack – and struggled to create any other clear-cut chances in the game. In their second World Cup fixture against one of the tournament favourites the Netherlands, Japan, although once again adopting a defensive approach to the game, did threaten the Dutch defence on several occasions, although crucially failed to convert any. With the Blue Samurai possessing the unwanted record of never winning a World Cup finals game in which the opponent has scored in, keeping a clean sheet could potentially be fundamental if they are to take anything from the game.
In Denmark they face a pacey side that will have a much greater advantage in height, which is bound to pose problems for the disciplined Japanese defence as Coach Okada stated: “How to deal with their height in set plays and their long balls will be our main issues. We have to be sure about how to maintain a solid defence against them.” Against Cameroon, the Blue Samurai’s defence only seemed vulnerable at set-pieces, so if Japan is to keep a clean sheet it is vital they don’t allow the big Danish players any free headers at goal. One of Denmark’s taller players and talisman, Arsenal youngster Nicklas Bendtner is struggling with a groin injury, and is a doubt for the decisive fixture in Rustenburg despite playing with the injury in the previous two group games.
Japan will take heart from Denmark’s unconvincing victory over Cameroon, where the Danes came back from a goal down to win – the first time they have overturned a lead to win at the World Cup. Denmark were facing early elimination from the World Cup had they not came from behind to defeat the Indomitable Lions. If Japan are to score goals at this World Cup, Denmark are the most likely victims. In both of their World Cup encounters in this tournament, defensive blunders have cost Denmark, and Japan will be looking to exploit their weakness at the back.
Japan face Denmark at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg this afternoon, and if they are to progress the Blue Samurai will learn who awaits them in the second round when Group F concludes later that night – with Paraguay or Italy the most likely opponents.