With the Netherlands sitting comfortably in first place with two wins and Cameroon mathematically eliminated, Denmark and Japan will play for the final Group E spot in the knock-out stage. Since both teams are level at three points, the victor will move on. However, in the case of a tie, Japan will move on due to its superior goal differential. Japan’s goal differential is higher by one because it lost to the Netherlands by only one goal, whereas Denmark lost by two. Had GK Kawashima let in even one of the two 1v1 opportunities that the Netherlands had in the second half, goal differential would be equal but Denmark would gain the advantage due to their higher number of goals scored. In retrospect, those amazing saves by Kawashima enabled Japan to be in the enviable position of moving on with just a tie. Although I was critical of Kawashima’s inability to stop Sneijder’s shot, I now understand that he was the MVP of the game.
Win or Draw?
The ability to move on with a tie always presents a difficult conundrum for teams. Do you play conservatively and go for the tie or should you play aggressively and go for the win? When you bring in a bit of game theory and recognize that a team needing to win (Denmark) will play more aggressively than usual, it might be dangerous to sit back and hope for a 0-0 tie. If Denmark comes gun-a-blazing for a goal, Japan will in turn have more openings in offense. On the other hand, if Japan aggressively goes for the goal in the opening moments, our own defense will open up and potentially make it easier for Denmark to score. The worst case scenario is for Japan to go down 1-0 early in the game, which would force our offensive hand. It would be interesting to see how many teams in Japan’s situation in World Cup history have advanced with a tie versus those that have advanced with a win.
Luckily, Japan don’t have to rely on me to make these decisions and it looks like Okada will utilize the same strategy that Japan used in its previous two matches. He will likely use the same formation and try to keep the score 0-0 through halftime. If this scenario holds, 20 minutes into the second half, Okada will go for a victory by putting in a number of offensive substitutes, which will likely include Shunsuke Nakamura. While this strategy sounds very defensive-minded, Okada has mentioned, “We aren’t going to go for a tie from the outset. We’ll just play the same as always.”
In a sense, Denmark coming out offensively will liken the game to Japan’s first two since both Cameroon and the Netherlands wanted to put the game away early with their abundance of offensive fire power. If Japan can hold off the initial attack of the Danes and go into halftime with a 0-0 tie, the Danes will increase their attack and create holes in their defense that Japan can exploit. What I’m hoping for is that keeping the Danes off the score sheet will cause them to panic and their attacks will become more and more desperate, similar to the way Cameroon played in the second half. I have confidence that Nakazawa, Tulio Tanaka, Nagatomo and the rest of the Japanese defense will be able to hold the Danes till the end if we can keep them off the score sheet early. However, as much as I’m a fan of Shunsuke Nakamura, I wonder whether he’s the best player to put in with a 0-0 tie with 30 minutes remaining. If we are down 1-0, I totally agree with putting him in to increase our offensive firepower, but with 30 minutes remaining perhaps our focus should be on keeping the score that way. Again, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make these decisions, but I am happy that Okada wants to win.
Before the World Cup started, the one team I thought we had the best chance of winning against was Denmark. So while I don’t take them lightly, I’m glad that our final game is against Denmark and not Cameroon or the Netherlands. That being said, Denmark is probably better than Japan and it will take a great deal of effort to beat them. The team is organized and disciplined and they have two stars in Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner and Ajax winger Dennis Rommedahl. Nagatomo has shown that he has the ability to shut down opponents’ star players and I expect him to do the same against Denmark.
Okada spent the off-day on Monday studying videos of the Danish team and when asked what the team’s weaknesses were, he replied, “There are absolutely no weaknesses on this team.” A reporter then mentioned that the Danish defense might be weak, to which Okada replied, “Hmm…. I’m not sure about that.” I think Okada is taking the right approach by not taking Denmark too lightly even if they do not have the level or talent or physical ability that the Netherlands and Cameroon possess.
One thing that Denmark has a definite advantage over Japan is in size. Denmark is easily the biggest team in Group E with an average height of 184.4cm and average weight of 77.9 kg. In contrast, Japan’s average height is 178.9 cm and 74 kg. This size difference is accentuated when we compare Denmark’s forwards against Japan’s defenders. Denmark’s forwards are on average 189.3cm and 81 kg! This compared to Japan’s defenders who are on average 179.3 cm and 74.9kg. A full 10 cm height advantage and 6kg of extra muscle to push around! Japan probably have a quicker, speedier team, but if Japan gives away free kicks and corner kicks that can be lobbed into the box, we’re going to have to expect a number of spectacular saves from Kawashima.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
We can continue talking about skill levels, tactics and formations, but the teams are pretty evenly matched and the winner will be determined by something else: guts. This is a World Cup loser-goes-home death-match, so I expect both teams to come out with 100% intensity. However, the team that can elevate themselves to 110%, the team that runs till they throw up, the team that ignores the pain and sacrifices their bodies…..this is the team that will win. Okada knows this and that’s why he’s told his team to put their lives on the line. There will be blood. There will be sweat. And surely, there will be tears. For Japan these tears will be meaningless, unless they’ve taken this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make history for Japanese football.