Needless to say it was sunny today, gloriously so. The umbrellas were still out in patches (well, you don’t want to get sunstroke do you?) but Japan seemed to have awoken anew.
Well, ok, maybe that’s a slight overstatement but, still, the result last night has reinvigorated the appetite for the World Cup in the country. Keisuke Honda’s beaming, chiselled face adorned the front pages of every newspaper and the reams of inanity on my TV were interrupted by far more utterances of the words ‘warudo’ and ‘kappu’.
Fantastically, my worries ahead of the game were entirely needless and Mr. Okada had set his charges up perfectly for their opener. Every player on the pitch stuck doggedly to their task for the duration of the match, and although Cameroon came close on a couple of occasions they were never able to gain a real foothold on the game.
While Honda grabbed the headlines, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima can also take a great deal of credit for the win, and his spectacular save in the dying moments of the match ensured that Japan kept their first clean sheet since shutting out Bahrain in March.
It really was one of those games when it is difficult to single out any one player though, and the team worked superbly as a unit to nullify the threat of their opponents.
Full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Yuichi Komano hardly put a foot wrong, while Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa marshalled the heart of the defence impeccably, throwing themselves in the way of strikes from range and sweeping up whenever the danger seemed to have breached the back-line.
Yuki Abe was similarly solid in the holding role at the rear of midfield, snapping into tackles and disrupting any rhythm that Cameroon were attempting to build, while Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe each played their own game perfectly, keeping possession for Japan with a calmness that spread throughout the team.
Daisuke Matsui and Yoshito Okubo – two players often much-maligned while on international duty – were tireless, putting in impressive shifts down the flanks and providing their teammates with much-needed breathers as they carried the ball forward, drawing countless fouls from Cameroon and, in Matsui’s case, claiming an assist for the goal by man-of-the-match Honda.
The substitutes Kisho Yano and Shinji Okazaki slid seamlessly into the game, and while I was initially surprised to see two strikers coming on with the game so precariously balanced, their superb work-rate and forward-thinking instincts were far more useful for Japan than the less adventurous style of a defensive midfield replacement would have been.
Just as it seemed that the team was inviting a little too much pressure though, Mr. Okada did throw on such a player, and Junichi Inamoto added just enough bite and aggression in his short time on the pitch to ensure that Japan took home all three points.
I personally don’t think anybody deserved the victory more than the head coach Takeshi Okada though. He has been slaughtered in the press almost constantly throughout his tenure and I am delighted that he has received his just rewards for sticking to his guns and refusing to bow to external pressures.
Many people were convinced (and indeed, seemed hopeful) that he would add three more losses to the trio of defeats Japan recorded during his first tenure as manager at the 1998 World Cup. That is now an impossibility and, regardless of what Japan do or don’t achieve in their next two (maybe more) matches at this tournament, he will instead always be the manager of the first Japanese team to record a World Cup finals win on foreign soil.
The highlight of the night for me was the shot of Mr. Okada – a man who does not often allow his emotions to get the better of him – fist clenched and smile unashamedly breakng out across his lips as Honda stabbed home the decisive goal. Good on you sir!