So they do come in threes after all. In this instance it wasn’t misfortunes that did so though, but goals – Japanese goals.
I am delighted that my prediction of a cagey draw was way off the mark, and am still reeling a little at the brutal manner with which Japan went about their business against Denmark.
I am happy to concede that I was also wrong about something else on Thursday night. As Keisuke Honda stood threateningly over the ball 467 yards from goal an expectant murmur was spreading around the pub. I smiled to myself, enjoying the Japanese fans’ enthusiasm and optimism but knowing that it wasn’t possible to score from there.
This spectacular strike was more than just a thunderbolt that puts all of the complaints about the Jabulani being impossible to control, manipulate or swerve to bed, though. It was a breakthrough for the Japanese team and proof positive to them that taking risks – something they traditionally don’t do often enough – can bring about fantastic rewards. As if to confirm this point, Yasuhito Endo tried his luck ten minutes later and found similar results – and the top corner of Thomas Sorenson’s goal. Still not quite believing, the same player later upped the stakes a little, this time attempting to float one over the Stoke keeper from nigh-on the halfway line. He hit the bar.
Despite bossing proceedings and dealing with the Danish fight-back with composure and authority Japan did concede though – with John Dahl-Tomasson notching the most depressing of goals, the rebound from a softly awarded penalty – and the Samurai Blue were made to deal with another personal demon. While they often wilt when under pressure from a team who sense a way back into the game though, they remained resolute and continued to attack.
This resulted in Shinji Okazaki – a goal from whom I had earlier opined would be the icing on the cake – finishing the game off after some sublime and unselfish approach play by Honda. This goal will do wonders for the Shimzu S-Pulse striker’s confidence, and his CSKA Moscow teammate perhaps also realised the importance of having your number nine amongst the goals.
While, as with the Cameroon game, this was another phenomenal team performance, it would be amiss not to give Honda his dues as the standout performer this time after a sensational display. He looked at total ease throughout the 90 minutes and played with a strength, intelligence and assuredness that will have surely put the seal on his status as a future Premier League player.
In years to come this could very well be looked back on as the game in which he not only announced himself to the world, but also when he truly realised himself that he was able to compete at the top level. He has of course never been lacking in confidence or ambition – and anybody with any knowledge of the Japanese game had singled him out as the team’s hope in South Africa – but such hype always needs to be backed up on the pitch. Against Denmark he did that.
If this is the case the man himself was far from letting it slip though, and his post-match interview gave the clearest insight into his character.
“For Japan it’s a big win. I’m glad we won but I am not satisfied. The next game is more important. I want to show the Japanese that nothing is impossible. We have to still go further and step by step we have to go about doing this. There will be challenges, but I believe the team as a whole can succeed here.”
With self-belief and confidence coursing through the team right now, and Honda in scintillating form, there are very few who could argue with him.