The Calm Before the Storm
There was some question whether Japan would play tentatively for the tie or play aggressively and go for the win. In the first 10 minutes, Japan played quite balanced and Denmark seemed to be controlling the flow of play by putting together quick short passes in the midfield. Denmark were able to get some crosses into the box, but the initial period of the game went without any real chances for either team. Then at around 13 minutes, both sides decided it was time for a fight. Okubo put in a beautiful cross to Matsui, whose shot was saved by the thigh of the Danish GK, then seconds later Matsui sent Hasebe through but the shot went just wide of the goal. In a span of about 30 seconds Japan showed an attacking spirit not seen in months. The Danes were not to be outdone and Tomasson had a near miss that could have easily put the Danes up 1-0 and in the driver’s seat. The Vuvuzelas suddenly began buzzing louder as if to foreshadow the coming goals.
There were rumors in the Japanese press that a Real Madrid scout was coming to the game to take a look at Honda, and that Honda would play extra hard today. Well if the rumors were true, Honda did not disappoint. At 17 minutes, Honda changed the course of Japanese football forever with the most brilliant free kick of the World Cup so far. From over 35 yards out on the right side, Honda struck a no-spin ball over everyone, past the keeper’s outstretched hands, and into the side netting of the far post. The ball seemed to almost dance, wobble and float in the air, and the keeper could not determine which direction it was flying until it was too late. In fact, the shot was not even hit that hard and replays show Honda concentrating on kicking the ball perfectly in the middle rather kicking it with power. We’ve seen so many hard hit free kicks go sailing over the bar in this World Cup, but Honda seems to have figured out the Jabulani.
After the goal, Japan could have again chosen to concentrate on defense but instead they kept attacking. At 30 minutes, Okubo earned a free kick and both Honda and Endo lined up to take the shot from 30 yards out. The wall, full of Denmark’s tall players was probably almost a foot taller than what Endo is used to in the J-league, but Endo saw the opening that GK Sorenson left on the right side of the goal and curled a perfectly placed ball over the wall and into the net. A more traditional goal than Honda’s but just as beautiful. Endo started to run towards the sideline in celebration almost as soon as he hit the ball, realizing how perfectly he had taken this free kick. It used to be that we fans complained that Japan always scored their goals on set pieces, but after seeing these two goals, I’m not sure I could think of a more beautiful way to score.
Even after the two goals, Japan continued to attack and both Okubo and Matsui were creating chances and even defenders Tulio Tanaka and Nakazawa went forward on occasion. Nagatomo, the left back also created chances, including a couple times when he dribbled past Danish defenders to create shots on goal for himself. It was an attacking spirit that Japan rarely uses against better teams, and it was pure pleasure to watch. A few weeks back Tulio Tanaka said that the team was incapable of playing beautiful soccer against tougher teams. Honda also talked about Japan probably having only one or two scoring chances in each game this World Cup. But this game proved that when Japan have the spirit and desire, they can attack with the best of them. Funny what a little bit of confidence can do.
Don’t Forget the Defense
As much as Japan attacked, they played a very balanced game in which their defense stood tall against the taller Danish opponents. I had mentioned the “bend but don’t break” defense that Japan had been playing recently in which Japan pull everyone back and, gets bombarded by crosses and shots, and prays for a miracle. In such a defense, both luck and spectacular goal keeping are required to keep a team off the score sheet. But today, Japan was so organized in the back that it never felt like Denmark was creating any dangerous chances. Nakazawa and Tulio Tanaka were impenetrable as they cleared out every high cross that came their way. Nagatomo and Komano on the sides also played well and rarely did the Danes get behind the defense to create dangerous scoring chances
Denmark did score when a penalty kick was awarded to Denmark after what looked to me like a dive. But even on the penalty kick, Japan could gain some positives as Kawashima saved his second straight penalty kick. Although, Tomasson scored the rebound, the victory in that situation belonged to Kawashima.
Nail in the Coffin
And just when you thought that Japan might fall back into a defensive shell and crumble like it did to Australia in 2006 (when Japan let in three goals in the final 5 minutes), Japan istead revved up their offense again and got a third goal with minutes remaining in the game. A beautiful pass from Okubo found Honda, who made a spectacular move to get behind the defense. Honda then made a simple pass to Okazaki who had an easy shot to score. Another beautiful goal - and this time not from a set piece.
The Sun Rises on Japan
It seems that today, Japan grew up and became a real player in World football. Up until today, we had been the team that looked for a lucky goal and tried to hold on for dear life. Luck used to determine whether Japan would score and we used to rely on the woodwork to keep our opponents off the scoresheet. It was a childish, hopeful way of playing football. A commenter on this blog said it best when he described the Japan team as looking like a bunch of 10-year-olds against the Dutch. I’m not sure I totally agree with the comment, but we all know what he meant. But today Japan played like men. We attacked the goal at 0-0, attacked at 1-0, continued to attack at 2-0, and when the game got a little scary at 2-1, we attacked even more. We played the way a team nicknamed after the great Japanese warriors of centuries past should play.