I think that four points will be enough but am not convinced that Japan can get them. This was the ‘in a nutshell’ comment I provided the Guardian with for my bio on their Fans’ Network a couple of weeks ago. Now, as Japan head into their final game in Group E, they have three points and need just one against Denmark to ensure qualification. So, four points will be enough. Am I convinced they can get them yet? Hmmm.
In their two games so far Japan have played well – much better than expected – and after grinding out a 1-0 win against Cameroon they performed impressively against a strong Dutch side last night, despite their eventual defeat. Once again they defended resolutely, and were it not for an error by Eiji Kawashima could well have clung on for a point. Although Holland dominated possession, Japan looked far more potent when they did have the ball than against Cameroon and created more chances than in their opening match.
However, as is all too often the case with Japan, they were not able to take advantage of any of these chances – with Shinji Okazaki being the biggest culprit, blazing over the bar when he had a clear sight of goal in the dying stages.
The result, in the end, was actually irrelevant as even a draw with Holland would have meant a point in their final match would suffice. As I have previously referred to though, psychology is so important in sport, particularly in tournaments like the World Cup. Had Kawashima kept a second consecutive clean sheet he would be feeling that inch taller in his goal, had Okazaki fired home he would be brimming with confidence. Instead it is now Denmark who are in the ascendancy after their victory against Cameroon, while Japan have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after defeat.
This is not to say they cannot do it. Takeshi Okada has demonstrated that he is able to motivate his players and his demeanor in the post-match interview last night was that of a man who was genuinely disappointed not to have gotten something from the game. The players roused themselves from their dismal preparation for this tournament by defeating Cameroon and now know they are just one more solid performance away from progressing to the second round.
The fact they only need a draw appears, on the face of it, as a positive. Two of three possible outcomes will see them through, and the fact that Denmark must come out for the win could leave them susceptible to counter-attacks – particularly without their defensive lynchpin Simon Kjaer, who will be suspended for the match. However, there is always a danger that the team who know a draw is enough sit back a little too much and eventually succumb to defeat.
While the 4-1-2-2-1 formation has worked for Japan to an extent, they have found it difficult to make the ball stick in their opponents’ half and, as such, have surrendered the lions’ share of possession. This is a dangerous game to play when the opposition need a victory though, and doubts still remain about whether Japan can hold out for the full 90 minutes (with, for instance, Yuji Nakazawa’s lack of pace being exposed on a couple of occasions against Holland).
It will be a tense night in Rustenburg (particularly if honours remain even going into the final 20 minutes or so) but if Japan can settle and avoid conceding early then there is a very real possibility that they could sneak a goal as Denmark become stretched. Of course, this is all ifs and buts, and a mistake, sending off or moment of magic from any of the 22 men on the field could turn the whole situation on its head.
What cannot be denied is the fact that they are in a fantastic position though, and one that they (and I) would certainly have taken before the tournament kicked off.