Japan Camp Focus – Japan true to their word

Prior to Japan’s decisive Group E encounter with Denmark, Coach Takeshi Okada and Captain Makoto Hasebe vowed to attack the Danes from the outset, a claim which was widely dismissed as simply a rally cry – this writer included – however, the Blue Samurai shocked everyone with their attacking mind-set. Having scored just one goal in seven warm-up fixtures before the World Cup and not threatening the goal too much in the tournament thus far, few would have anticipated Japan netting four in the group stages against teams ranked well above them.

After a cagey start to the crucial game, it was expected Japan would retain their defensive style of play used in their opening two fixtures. Twenty minutes gone in the game, Japan was awarded a free-kick around 30-yards from goal. Talisman Keisuke Honda then went for the audacious and scored a spectacular Ronaldo-esque free-kick to give the Blue Samurai the lead – but although a remarkable effort by Honda, Sorenson will be disappointed not to have saved it. Possessing a priceless lead, you would expect Okada’s defensive side to sit back and play for the draw to ensure progression to the second round. This was not to be the case however. Minutes after taking the lead, the Blue Samurai were awarded another free-kick, around 20-yards from goal this time. Goal-scorer Honda left it for Yoshito Endo who curled in a Beckham-esque effort to double Japan’s lead, meaning that the Danes would now need to score three to retain any hope of progressing.

Two goals ahead and the Blue Samurai’s confidence was growing by the minute, creating many chances with Matsui proving to be the playmaker. Whilst impressing going forward, Japan were once again solid and disciplined in defence. Denmark’s key man Dennis Rommedahl was struggling to make any impact on the game, remaining largely anonymous as the Blue Samurai defence ensured the former Charlton midfielder saw as little of the ball as possible. Prior to the game, Denmark’s clear advantage in height was expected to cause Japan problems with set-pieces, however, the Danes failed to exploit their height advantage and it was the Blue Samurai who always looked like scoring from set-pieces. Since Sorenson’s earlier blunder that led to Japan’s opening goal, the Stoke City goalkeeper looked vulnerable, and was almost caught out by Endo’s long range floating free-kick with Sorenson’s positioning unsure, he just about tipped it on to the post.

In contrast to the Blue Samurai, Denmark never looked like scoring. John Dahl Tomasson spurned several good chances and Japan proved their defensive quality when the Denmark captain was in the six-yard box with the goal beckoning, Japan captain Hasebe made a goal-saving tackle. Honda, who is proving to be one of the players of the tournament so far, was using his pace to draw in fouls to take the pressure off the Japanese defence. As displayed in the previous encounters, Honda’s work-rate saw the Blue Samurai defend from the front. The eagerness for possession was epitomised when Endo lost the ball from the free-kick, two Japan players closed down Denmark defender Daniel Agger to regain possession – a mentality that had seen the Blue Samurai on the verge of qualification. Okada’s men proved that they are not just a team that sits back and defends, but a team very good technically on the ball.

Japan did concede their however when captain Hasebe pushed Daniel Agger, a soft decision but a penalty nonetheless. John Dahl Tomasson stepped up and after his initial tame effort from the spot was saved by Eiji Kawashima – Tomasson then scored his 52nd goal for Denmark despite scuffing his rebound effort. Late on Honda completed his man-of-the-match performance showing skill in beating two Denmark defenders, and instead of going for his second goal, he unselfishly squared the ball for Okazaki, who sealed Japan’s place in the knock-out stages for the first time on foreign soil.

The Japanese were well worth their victory and qualification for the knockout phase of the tournament, and in truth could have scored many more. Japan showed another side to the team after displaying stubborn defending in the first two games of only their fourth World Cup appearance, they showed a technical side to their game. They will now face Paraguay in the last 16 of the World Cup.

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