I have a horrendously sore throat and am on antibiotics (so no beer for me tonight – well, maybe one) and as temperatures reach 30°C with 50% humidity my fridge has decided to break. These things happen in threes apparently, and I sincerely hope that the hat-trick does not arrive this evening with Japan failing to progress from Group E.
All the signs point towards a fairly staid affair in their match with Denmark, and my prediction for the game before the tournament kicked off was an insipid 0-0. Now though, with Denmark in need of a win, it is difficult to see the game ending goalless.
Japan have looked fairly resolute thus far and, while Denmark are no slouches, having tamed the attacks of Cameroon and the Netherlands there is not anybody in the Danish ranks who should cause undue concern to the Japanese defence.
This is not the same as the matches against Cameroon or the Netherlands though and there is real pressure riding on this one. One misplaced pass, lack of concentration at a set-piece or rash tackle in the penalty area could be the difference between progression and elimination.
I took part in a talk-show at a football pub in Osaki on the evening of the opening ceremony and was asked what I thought Japan’s biggest problems were. The first, I volunteered, was that they appeared to struggle somewhat when playing at home, seemingly suffocating under the pressure of expectation. Check. This is not a problem half-way around the world in South Africa and, thus far, the team has retained its composure.
Secondly, I voiced my concern for the team when they concede first. This is something that had come up in a conversation I once had with Mato Neretljak, a Croatian defender at J.League side Omiya Ardija, and he expressed bemusement at the way in which the concession of a goal always seems to rattle Japanese players. “Sometimes I don’t understand it here, when we concede a goal we start to play very badly,” he told me. “Maybe it’s a mental problem. I think it’s only a mental problem.” With Denmark likely to come out and attack in the early stages tonight Japan cannot afford to a) play badly or b) experience any mental weakness. They need to stay calm and, if and when they do concede, stick to their game-plan and not become flustered.
Finally, I suggested that Japan are a fairly predictable team to play against and that they need to vary their play far more if they are to truly improve on the international stage. They like to play many short passes and retain possession of the ball, often without any real thrust. While this is all well and good when 1-0 up with 15 minutes to go, it is not particularly useful when in need of a goal (as they may well be tonight). More risks need to be taken (as head coach Takshi Okada alluded to here (http://www.fccj.or.jp/node/5753)) and the team sometimes need to be a little more direct when attacking. Any number of things can influence the flight of a strike from range (wind, deflection, bobble, Robert Green) and sometimes, rather than trying one more slide-rule pass, an optimistically-struck 30-yarder could bring about fantastic rewards.
In Keisuke Honda, Japan do have a player capable of trying something a little different though, and maybe it’s blind optimism, maybe it’s hope or maybe it’s the cocktail of drugs the nice doctor gave me this morning, but I think he will be the key tonight and that his goal will ease Japan into the second round. 1-1.