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Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 06/22/2010

“Put your lives on the line!” Coach Okada enthusiastically told his players in the latest team meeting. For a team like Japan, which has such a short, unimpressive World Cup history and hasn’t yet reached the level of the top world teams, a chance to make it into the knock-out stages of the World Cup with just a tie is rare. In fact Okada mentioned that such an opportunity “doesn’t come often in one’s lifetime.” With so much on the line, the Blue Samurai will embark on one of the most important matches in the history of Japanese football and look to either tie or beat Denmark and make it to the next round.

The Situation

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.

Denmark

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.

Comments

Posted by cs on 06/22/2010

I like your entry. This is it! This Japan team is on the verge of making history in Japanese soccer. Though I think it will do them much good if they can advance to the knockout with a win instead of a tie. Organised and fluid counter-attacks, solid defence and a strong stopper. If the team can put these out on the field, there is no reason why they cannot beat the Danes. I hope a more robust and aggressive Jap team turns up in the next match! Go Japan go!!

Posted by sam on 06/22/2010

Ken-san, thank you for a great anlytical preview of the "once in a lifetime" match!

I agree with most of what you said:

1) Kawashima is indeed the MVP of that game. (I would also put Tulio on the pedestal for his endless effort and commitment)

2) "Denmark is probably better than Japan"

3) Size difference is a big disadvantage in free-kick and corner-kick situations.

4) The "guts" factor will determine the end result.

But for this game, in my humble opinion, speculating for a 0-0 score thru half-time would be a mistake, not to say "suicidal." It was a great strategy for the first 2 matches but I don't think its appropriate for this one.

Do or die for both squads. Scoring first will and should be the best defence in this situation. Because the Danes don't expect Japan to take the initiative, is precisely the reason why I think we should go for it from minute 1 !

Maybe I am wrong, but who cares??!! All we want is the best from our Samurai Warriors!

Cheers!

Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 06/23/2010

I tend to agree that we need to be a bit more aggressive on offense in the first half and try to get an early goal. Although, I'm not sure we need to go 100% at getting that first goal. A balanced strategy where we are trying to score more than in the previous games but still keeping our defense solid is probably best. Okada seems to be content with the same strategy that he has used in the previous two games, but perhaps he is keeping certain things secret and will actually come out attacking. Whatever happens let's just hope for a positive result.

By the way, I will not be live blogging this game because I am in a location where I will not have internet access during the game. I apologize in advance!

Posted by carl mcmahon on 06/23/2010

i think tulio has been the best player for japan in these finals,he is everywhere in defense and i am also impressed by nagatomo.
i am a goalkeeper myself and my favourite keepers in the whole world are sorensen and yoshikatsu kawaguchi.i am very impressed with kawashima(he should of done better with the goal,but that is the downside to being a goalkeeper,you can go from hero to villian in a split second.)
Do you think European teams will have a look at Tulio as i think he is a very good defender.
i am a danish fan and we are missing kjaer in defense so that is a big loss.
it will be a very close game but whoever goes through they do deserve it.
good luck for the match

Posted by carl mcmahon on 06/23/2010

also Japan is a much more disciplined side than Cameroon and i think Denmark will find it harder to break them down than Cameroon.

Posted by Steve on 06/23/2010

To tie, or to play for a win. What a crazy conundrum & predicament Japan is under... I'm surprised that you picked out Denmark over Cameroon to get a win before this tournament. On paper, Denmark is the 2nd best team in Group E.

Either way, Ganbatte Blue Samurai... Hope Japan can follow South Korea to knockout stage!

Posted by JD on 06/23/2010

If Japan is to move on to the next stage we need to see an aggressive Blue Samurai fighting every second in this upcoming game. A conservative mindset will not work especially against a hungry team like the Danes. The Blue Samurai need to be more hungry and play to win, not a play-not-to-lose mindset because that never works especially with the Blue Samurai. I guarantee you if Japan plays as aggressive and as smart as they did in the first halves of Cameroon and the Netherlands game(as well as the last minutes of the Dutch game), Japan can win this extremely important match! Japan HAS to play with a sense of urgency!

Posted by pheneo22 on 06/24/2010

I agree with most of you regarding how we should aproach the game. I think Matsuura-san is spot on when he said we do need to get the goal but not go all out for it. I think the key is balance. We need to be aggresive because if we sit back, we're only inviting trouble but we shouldn't over commit because we only need a draw and Denmark has the abilty to nick a goal or two if we over commit.
I agree with steve, Denmark is on paper, the 2nd best team in the group. Well "on paper", Japan is the weakest anyway but we've proven otherwise, so I'm confident we can get a result.
Personally, I hope we can win. If we are going to the 2nd round, we need the confidence a win can give in order to compete in the next round. Having said that, as long as our samurais fight with all their heart, I'd be happy.

ベスト4に向かって全力で頑張れ、我らの誇り青き侍!

Posted by sam on 06/24/2010

Well said JD!

Yesss! "Hunger"!!! Thats what the Blue Samurai needs. As long as they show us how hungry they are to "win", I will be a happy fan, no matter what the result shall be.

This opportunity to move on is not a "salary-man" promotion. The guys have over 110 million Japanese + many Asians around the world supporting them and wishing to see them play the "Game of our lives."

Lets go Japan! Show us why we named you "Samurai" ! Don't be afraid and give us everything you have! It will be much more than we all need!!

Gambare Nippon!

Posted by Steve on 06/24/2010

Hmm, correct me if I'm wrong but I thought Japan bunkered up against Cameroon & 1st half against Dutch. I don't remember Japan being aggressive...

Tulio Tanaka needs Man of the Match performance for Japan to progress. I can see a lot of crosses coming in from the byline for Bentdner & Tomasson to head.. something the Dutch did not do against Japan. Denmark is much more direct in their approach... Again, GOODLUCK Japan.. I want another Asian representative in the last 16. =)

Posted by hdgshg on 06/24/2010

boo japan

Posted by fdfdfer on 06/24/2010

helewerew

Posted by dan from the korea blog on 06/24/2010

wow.... i honestly didn't expect this kind of performance from japan. you guys completely dominated the danes.

huge congrats!!!! so happy for you!

cheers,
dan

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About

Kentaro Matsuura was born in Japan and following a move to the USA resorted to following the national team by renting video tapes in Chinatown. Most recently, Kentaro played for and ran the football club at his graduate school, where he studied business. He will join a consulting firm upon graduation.

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