Fortune favours the brave

Losing on penalties is never as unlucky as it’s portrayed, and Japan – in particular one of their star men – have only themselves to blame for their quarter-final elimination at the Asian Cup… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 24th, 2015

There was all the usual bluster about lotteries in the wake of Japan’s penalty shoot-out defeat to the UAE on Friday night, but luck had nothing to do with the Samurai Blue’s premature exit from the competition they were favourites to win.

The team had dominated in its characteristically methodical style throughout the 120 minutes, achieving a 90.1% success rate on its 799 passes, according to Opta. As is all too often the case they weren’t able to take advantage of their superiority, though, only managing to get eight of their 35 shots at goal on target – with Takashi Inui, Yohei Toyoda, and Yoshinori Muto all missing absolute sitters.

Shinji Kagawa was also culpable when presented with goal-scoring opportunities, and it was fitting that the Borussia Dortmund man was ultimately the one who lost his nerve from 12 yards in the shoot-out.

The 25-year-old has been a passenger for the national team for too long now, and it is not only his lack of goals that mean his seemingly automatic selection as No.10 should be rethought. Kagawa has not been the same since his disastrous transfer to Manchester United, and his ineffectiveness in a Japan shirt is more than just a dip in form.

The reaction of his teammates when Kagawa did finally end his scoring drought against Jordan was telling, with everyone expressing their joy that the former Cerezo Osaka forward had found the net and commenting on how it would boost his confidence.

This is not a youngster settling into international football, though, this is supposedly one of the stars of the Asian game, a man who should be leading by example and taking responsibility for his team. Why was he not up there with Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe in taking the first penalties in the shoot-out?

Japan's fans ahead of the defeat to UAE in Sydney, Friday 23rd January, 2015

Yes, Honda missed, but he had had no qualms about going first. Kagawa, meanwhile, was happy to remain in the shadows and hope that his teammates could settle the game instead – something he has been doing in regular play for far too long. Once we progressed to sudden-death and he was obliged to step up there was only going to be one outcome.

“In the end we went to a penalty shot-out – that is 50% probability, plus the players’ precision,” Javier Aguirre claimed in his post-match press-conference. Yasuhito Endo, however – a man who does know how to convert a spot-kick, but was sadly already on the bench by that stage – dismissed suggestions that any aspect of success from 12 yards is beyond the control of the player striking the ball.

“Aside from luck, everything [is important] – technique and mentality,” he told me in the mixed zone. “Luck is irrelevant. In reality, if you kick it hard enough towards the side-net it will go in. It’s nothing but technique and mentality.

“There was pressure on everyone. Some can deal with that, some can’t. For penalties I think everyone has the same pressure. You are thinking about what will happen if you miss. Shinji and Keisuke both missed but I don’t think that either of them have a weak mentality.”

Kagawa was visibly affected by his miss, addressing the media in barely-audible tones after the game.

“The fact that, in the end, I missed and we lost the game has meaning,” he said. “Whether there is something lacking, in terms of mental strength, I don’t know. I believed [we could win], and so I am just incredibly sorry.”

Just how many more chances he will be given to prove himself for the national team remains to be seen, but the pattern of failure followed by apology can only be repeated so many times before a change needs to be made – for the good of the player himself as well as the team.


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