The Blue Samurai’s dream of reaching the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time was shattered after a penalty-shoot out defeat to Paraguay, with Coach Takeshi Okada claiming he is set to retire following his side’s elimination.
After a dire encounter, in which neither side were committed to attack, Japan
Facing opposition in Paraguay, who like Japan have never made the last eight of the World Cup, you would have expected Coach Takeshi Okada to retain the positive football in the knockout stages. Okada named an unchanged side to that which defeated Denmark in their final group game to ensure qualification to the knock-out stages of the World Cup for the first time on foreign soil. This wasn’t to be the case however, instead we saw Japan revert to the negative football tactics that proved so effective in their opening win over Cameroon. Paraguay also appeared intent on playing a defensive game, albeit slightly more competent going forward than Japan, which resulted in a lacklustre 120 minutes of football destined to be settled by spot-kicks from the outset.
In a game of few chances, Japan’s makeshift striker Keisuke Honda was the catalyst of all their attacking moves. However, Honda was far too isolated up front, feeding off scraps as the Blue Samurai played far too deep. At least the penalties were exciting though, and with a couple of very good spot-kicks executed by both sides, Yuichi Komano stepped up to try and level the score at 3-3. However, despite there being so much talk of Japan’s ability to control the controversial Jabulani ball, Komano’s effort smashed the upside of the crossbar to give Paraguay the advantage. With the following penalties all scored, Japan’s fate was sealed and they paid the penalty for playing negative football.
More drama was to follow, with Japan Coach Takeshi Okada claiming he is set to retire, although whether this is another joke, after claiming he would quit prior to the World Cup before backtracking – claiming they were in jest – remains to be seen. After failing to meet his somewhat optimistic pre-World Cup target of reaching the semi-finals, Okada said: “I have nothing left now – I think I will retire from the job.”
Going into the World Cup, Okada was vilified and mocked by the Japanese media after a dismal build-up to the tournament. Okada’s side lost all of their warm-up encounters, scoring just once – against England. Their wretched form wasn’t just in the pre-tournament friendlies, as Japan were defeated by rivals South Korea earlier this year – their most embarrassing defeat for decades. Furthermore, in his first spell in charge of the Blue Samurai at their first World Cup in France ’98, Okada’s men lost all three of their group games and Okada subsequently resigned.
Having gone into the tournament in such woeful form, few were expecting Japan to win even a point in the group stage. However, the Blue Samurai surprised everyone and silenced their critics in the process, and Okada can take his fair share of plaudits for that. Okada was aware that his side lacked attacking prowess but possessed a wealth of talent in midfield. He therefore packed the midfield and switched his talismanic midfielder Keisuke Honda into attack as a lone makeshift striker. Japan have played to their strengths for much this World Cup, knowing that their opponents possess more quality, therefore the Blue Samurai adopted a disciplined defensive game, looking for goals from the counter-attack or set-pieces. Their opponents were denied time on the ball and were always vulnerable to set-pieces with the quality of Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo always a threat – as Denmark found out. Although there was a distinct lack of a ‘Plan B’ for Japan, more often than not there was no need for one with opposition struggling to break down a stubborn Japanese defence. The lack of tactical alternative proved to be Japan’s downfall, however, with the lack of alternative available to Okada, his ‘Plan A’ proved to be a huge success, seeing the Blue Samurai to their first ever knock-out fixture on foreign soil.
Say what you will about Okada, but to lead Japan to the last 16 was quite a monumental achievement.