And all of a sudden, Japan’s exciting, eye-opening, inspirational journey comes to an end. Japan and Paraguay fought to a 0-0 draw, but Yuichi Komano hit the cross bar on his penalty try and Paraguay are through to the quarterfinals. Tears flowed freely after the game as players, coaches, and fans realized that these magical few weeks of tremendous ups and downs were finally over with one heartbreaking loss. But as we digest this sad day, I think we should hold our heads up high and realize what an amazing run Japan had in South Africa 2010, and what potential we have for 2014 and beyond.
Defense vs Defense
The game was not a beautiful game by any means as both teams seemed quite tentative starting out of the gate. Both teams had been strong defensively for the entirety of the tournament, and today would be no different. Tulio Tanaka and Nakazawa were like stone walls in the middle of Japanese defense and played aggressively and confidently throughout the game to keep Roque Santa Cruz and his teammates off the score sheet. The one or two times that Paraguay were able to create some scoring chances, GK Kawashima was able to make spectacular saves as he had been doing all tournament.
Japan’s offense had similar problems scoring. Unlike in the Denmark game where Japan attacked full force, it seemed that Japan had someone gone back to its conservative style of play that they used against Cameroon. I felt that Okada had gone back to his strategy of playing for a 0-0 tie into the half and making an offensive move in the second half. Japan did have some chances though, and the best was Matsui’s long range effort that smashed off the crossbar. I had written before the World Cup that for a team like Japan who defends well and creates only a few offensive chances, many games are decided by whether the ball goes in or out after its hits the post. When Matsui’s shot went off the bar, it reminded me of 2002 when Santos’ free kick went off the bar against Turkey. You begin to wonder how history would be different had the ball been 3 inches lower. The same bar would later deny Komano in the penalty kick shoot out.
That’s not to say that Paraguay never had its unlucky moments. Minutes after Matsui’s shot, Santa Cruz found the ball at his feet inside the penalty box and had his shot ready to go before the defense could recover. Luckily for Japan, Santa Cruz hit the ball just wide of the goal and Japan was saved from going down 1-0.
Paraguay did a job of keeping the majority of the possession. Initially, the possession was in favor of Paraguay by 67% to 33%, but eventually the possession ended up being 58% to 42% in Paraguay’s favor. This shows that after the first half, Japan started possessing the ball a bit better and took a few more risks in offense. However, we weren’t able to create many real chances, and the few times we combined well in the midfield, our final cross was miss-hit or went straight to an opposing defender.
The second best chance after Matsui’s shot was probably Honda’s shot that went wide left of the goal. He received a pass from Matsui on the ground, let the ball come across his body and shot with the outside of his left foot. It’s a difficult shot with the left when the ball comes from the right, but a tiny bit more precision would have seen Honda’s shot into the net. Imagine what a hero that would have made him.
In overtime, Paraguay made a strong surge toward Japan’s goal but some lucky bounces, strong defense and another exceptional save by Kawashima denied the Paraguayans. Japan’s best chance came when Honda was able to hold the ball in the midfield as three defenders swarmed him. He then tipped the ball out to Tamada who took it down the left flank. A gorgeous combination between Tamada and Okazaki saw Tamada to the left of the goal with just the keeper to beat. Nakamura Kengo was in the middle free to score but Tamada’s cross went way past. But other than that, Japan really could only manage to lob the ball in from freekicks earned very far from the goal.
In the Match Preview, I wrote that I thought the game would go into penalty kicks at 0-0 and Japan would win due to Kawashima’s recent success in penalty kicks. As you all know, Komano hit the cross bar and Paraguay made all five shots to win the game. The best players in the world miss penalty kicks in the most important games of their lives and it’s unfortunate for Komano to be the guy that had to miss. But I’m pretty sure no one blames him for the miss. It was unlucky and if it wasn’t him, it was bound to be someone else.
Japan’s exit from the World Cup was especially emotional since we went out on penalty kicks. It’s as close as you can get to winning without actually doing so. But to be perfectly honest, 31 teams leave the World Cup in heart break and I’m not sure there’s an easy way, at least emotionally, knowing that you’ll have to wait another four years before having this chance again. Four years is a long time in anyone’s life, especially footballers, and for many of these players this will be the last shot. I hope the entire Japan team, its coaches, and its fans keep their heads up high. As much as today’s loss hurt, we cannot think of loss as the sun setting on our World Cup. Instead we should keep our heads high, and see this as a new dawn for Japanese football – a new generation of Japanese football that can compete with the World’s best.