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Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 06/28/2010

Now that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated getting through to the knock-out stages, it’s time to buckle down and start thinking about and preparing for Japan’s game against Paraguay. Paraguay won Group F and is a strong South American side that wants to continue the continent’s tremendous success so far. Both teams have never made it past the round of 16, so the winner will have the pleasure of rewriting their nation’s soccer history. Let’s be clear. Japan is excited to be here. But we’re not JUST happy to be here. We don’t see this game as a bonus, nor do we see it as our final destination. There’s a lot more that this team wants to achieve.

Paraguay Report

Paraguay is a tough team that cannot be overlooked, but there aren’t many other first place teams that I would rather play in the round-of-16. First, they won their group with only 5 points, and the only other team to win with 5 points was the U.S. who were knocked out by Ghana yesterday. Second, Paraguay’s group, which included Italy, New Zealand and Slovakia, was considered one of the weakest in this year’s World Cup. There are many reasons to believe we can win this one, but again, we cannot take them lightly.

For one reason or another, Japan has not played many South American teams in recent years. In the past three years, Japan has only played four games against South American teams and are 1-1-2, including a 0-0 tie to Paraguay in the 2008 Kirin Cup. One thing for sure is that South American teams are dominating this World Cup and Paraguay finished third in qualifying from that continent. Their qualification was impressive in that they finished only one point behind top qualifiers Brazil, and even beat them during the campaign.

Paraguay Offense

Paraguay has a strong front-line led by the tall Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and the team is capable of scoring off set-pieces. Paraguay scored their lone goal against Italy when Antolin Alcaraz jumped above the Italian defense to head home a free kick from a long ways out. One of their goals against Slovakia was also came from a similar free kick from distance when a Paraguayan was able to knock the ball down inside the box. But if the Japanese defense has proven anything in the past three games, it is that they can shut down star players and that opponents cannot score using height alone. If Paraguay are planning to just lob long balls into Japan’s box, I think Japan can hold them off the score sheet. Further, Paraguay also comes into the game following a shaky tie against New Zealand in which they neither scored nor created many meaningful chances, so I’m expecting Nagatomo, Tulio Tanaka and Nakazawa to be strong and hold Paraguay scoreless.

Paraguay Defense

But what makes Paraguay who they are is their defensive strength. So far they’ve only let in one goal in three games, and they have a reputation for having one of the strongest defenses in South America. I assume Okada will come with the same strategy and formations that have given him success in this World Cup. Offensively this worked superbly against Denmark, but I can’t say I expect Japan to score three goals against Paraguay. Getting two goals from direct free kicks is somewhat of a lucky result (it hadn’t happened in the World Cup in a number of decades) and the Denmark game was more wide open due to Denmark’s need to score. That being said, Japan will get its chances and they have shown that they are completely capable of converting them no matter how few they are. If we get the ball to Honda and he finishes, or if we score from another set-piece (Japan are the most fouled team in the WC so far), then I believe we can win 1-0. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the game went 0-0 into overtime.

Keep Running

In the previous match report, I stressed the importance of playing with heart. I think the Denmark game was a perfect example of victory being contingent upon all eleven players playing beyond their limits for a common purpose. Okada told the players to play with their lives on the line and they went out and played perhaps the best game Japan has ever played. One stat the came out recently that supports this point is the total distance run per team. In the first round, Japan was second among all teams with 331.45km run. Soccer is a game based on running and a team fit enough to outrun its opponent increases its chance of winning. Okada said it best when he stated, “If every player runs 1 or 2 km more than his opponent, it adds up to having an extra player on the field.” Against Cameroon, Japan ran 110km compared to Cameroon’s 103km. Such an advantage is undeniable. But it takes extra guts and effort to run that much more than your opponent. Japan clearly has been doing this but I hope this work rate doesn’t drop off now that players may be tired from the three strenuous battles. With the possibility of overtime being quite high, we’ll need to outrun opponents for potentially 120 minutes instead of the usual 90. That’s no easy task.

Penalty Kicks

If after all of this Japan and Paraguay go to penalty kicks, Japan have the advantage. GK Kawashima has saved the last two penalty kicks (against England and Denmark) so I have a lot of confidence in him. I have a feeling he’s been learning a lot from 3rd string GK Kawaguchi, who stopped a Croatian penalty kick in the 2006 World Cup and had an historic run of penalty stops in the 2004 Asian Cup. Also, knowing the Japanese love for data analysis, I’m sure that every Paraguayan’s penalty taking habits have been deeply dissected.

Injuries and Cards

Injuries and yellow cards situations favor Japan. Antolin Alcaraz might be scratched due to injury and the same goes for Nelson Haedo Valdez. Victor Caceres will be out due to getting yellow cards in the previous two games. Japan have no major injuries or suspensions. In fact, Japan has only received yellow cards for time wasting in this World Cup and probably have the inside track for the FIFA Fair Play award.

Why Okada’s Best Four Vision Matters Now

When Japan made it to the round-of-16 on home soil in 2002, it seemed that the nation collectively exhaled knowing that the team’s task was finished. We had successfully avoided being the first home team to get knocked out in the group stages, and in a sense we had achieved our goal. I remember then-coach Troussier saying in an interview before the round-of-16 Turkey game that, “Anything beyond this is a bonus.” In the rain-soaked game, Troussier sat on the bench being careful not to get his suit wet. This was in stark contrast to the previous three games in which Troussier and his interpreter gestured wildly and yelled instructions as they ran up and down the sidelines for the entirety of the games. Against Turkey, it felt like Troussier was content with what had been already accomplished, and as you know Japan lost the game 1-0 and our World Cup was over.

Looking back, I sometimes blame that “anything beyond this is a bonus” mentality for our loss. I was guilty of this thinking as well, but as a nation I don’t think anyone believed Japan could do better than the round-of-16. It wasn’t until South Korea surprised the world by finishing fourth that anyone ever believed an Asian nation could do any real damage in the World Cup.

Having beaten all odds and predictions and making it to the knock-out-stages, right now Japan is in a similar situation to the one it faced in 2002. I think we could easily start thinking like Troussier did and feel that we’ve accomplished our goals and that “anything beyond this is a bonus.” But such thinking is a loser’s mentality and if Japan are to ever make a real mark in world soccer, we have to take advantage the present and win now. There’s no reason to settle.
In hindsight, I think this scenario is what Coach Okada had been preparing for months ago when he publically announced that Japan would aim to finish in the best four. He wasn’t saying that such a result was probable or expected, but he was telling his team that it wasn’t impossible. He had seen Korea do it with his own eyes just as everyone else had. Had Okada instead set a more “realistic” goal of getting through to the knock-out stage, Japan would now be in a position of having its mission completed. There would be no real motivation to win other than to get that extra “bonus”. But since Okada set such a high bar for the team, we go into this battle against Paraguay knowing that not only can we win, but also that we NEED to win in order to achieve a more significant goal. Let’s keep winning till we reach that ultimate goal.

Coach and Player Comments:

Okada: We came here having never even won a World Cup game outside of Japan. So every game has been a huge game for us. We played as if every game was a knock-out stage game. So now that we’ve actually reached the knock-out stage there’s not much we need to change. I’m not too worried with the players’ sense of accomplishment. I’ve been saying this over and over after the end of the Denmark game. That our goal is much further than where we are now.

DF Nakazawa: Of course we want to win, but all of us are thinking we want to go all the way (to the final).

DF Nagatomo: Our opponent has a lot of endurance, but I want to beat them by running more than them. Back at the hotel, the only thing me and Honda talk about is soccer. Like how he should move when I have the ball. We’re looking to win in 90 minutes.

Comments

Posted by Win on 06/28/2010

Honestly having watched all three of Japans games, I can tell that they have been one of the most entertaining teams by far. My Japanese friends told me before the Netherlands game they were just hoping not to be embarrassed, by the end of the game they were yelling jumping screaming, we all were at every chance Japan had, they very easily could have tied it, or even won. The denmark game was something different, it was great except the being up at 6am.

This game however, I think is the real test of their play. I noticed that Japan has been doing something very different then most teams offensively. They seem to always go inside on transition before setting up a more traditional offense. Its been working all three goals came from that kind of play in the denmark match. Japans style of forcing the other team to foul of give up a huge chance is what makes them so entertaining, their ability to shoot penalties is what makes them dangerous.

Posted by Anonymous on 06/28/2010

Of how Morimoto never get a game is beyond me. Team Japan needs a fox-in-the-box striker, and certainly Okubo is not.

Keisuke Honda is playing brilliantly at the moment, tight controls, always seem to have time when he has the ball. To my human eyes, he is performing on par with the likes of Ozil (Germany), Can't wait to see him playing in the bigger leagues.

Posted by cs on 06/28/2010

It will be advantageous to Japan for them to win the fight in 90 minutes. Though I believe Japan has the mental strength now to see them into the extra time and even penalty shootout. Go Japan! Show the world what you can do.

Once again, may Nakamura play and score.

Posted by Guppian on 06/28/2010

I too have been entertained by excellent performance of the Japanese team. I remember feeling like the Japanese team coach Mr. Okada was clueless when he said he hoped for his team to reach the final four. But looking at the Japanese team's performance and their never-die attitude all through the games thus far, I am beginning to believe in Mr. Okada and the Japanese team. I wish all the luck for the Japanese team. I will be rooting for Japan side to win this Paraguay contest and to reach their lofty goal of reaching the semifinals. My beloved Korean team did lose to Uruguay but I think Japan side is much more sharper at this stage of the game and much more focused. I would like Japan to set a higher standard for all the Asian teams so that we all can strive for more. Much more. Viva Japan.

Posted by pheneo22 on 06/28/2010

Before the tournament, I thought, I just want to just enjoy watching Japan play in all 3 matches. I was hoping they'd qualify but wasn't expecting it. But now, looking at the way they play so far, they looked like a team that belongs in the knock-out stage. One big difference I notice about this team compared to teams of the past is their belief and confidence in their play. They went out with a plan and they stuck to it and they fought for each other. Just hope they keep up this spirit for the Paraguay match

@anonymous
I'd like to see more of Nakumura myself. And Okazaki too. But the current 11 seems to work just fine.

@Matsuura-san
I've been meaning to ask this but keep forgetting. Why is Hasebe captain? I thought Nakazawa was captain for most of the qualifiers. Any info on that? (nothing wrong with it, just curious)

Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 06/28/2010

@pheneo22
To be perfectly honest, I don't know why Hasebe was chosen captain and different teams choose captains differently. Sometimes they are voted by the players and other times the coach chooses the captain. In this case, I believe Okada chose him. Hasebe is a no non-sense kind of guy that works super hard in the midfield, and this is an important leadership trait. I think Nakazawa is a good captain too, and Tulio Tanaka would be an interesting choice since he can get everyone motivated.

However, Okada has said that the real captain of the team is GK Kawaguchi. In fact, I think he selected Kawaguchi to the team for this sole purpose. Kawaguchi has the maturity and experience of three world cups and is a well-liked player. But of course, it's very important to have a leader on the pitch as well. I have a feeling there is not obvious leader on the current Japan squad so Okada selected someone from Europe (to deal with referees?) with a good work ethic.

Posted by Claudiu S. on 06/29/2010

Kentaro,

Good job with the blog and good job to Japan. Excellent football so far. Best of luck from your Romanian friend :).

Posted by WAN ZUL on 06/29/2010

Keep flying and send the Paraguayans home.

Posted by Miftah Farid on 06/29/2010

I think Paraguay would be beat japan team in this game. Because in front of the statistical player, there is santa cruz who play at Manchester City and has good technique in play a ball. I will support Paraguay From Long distance. I'm Farid, From Indonesia. I like watching world cup 2010 very much.

Posted by Majestrix on 06/29/2010

This Japanese team is the most successful Japanese team, I have ever witnessed, and has all qualities to rewrite history of Asian Football..... Paraguay may be a defensive team, but their attack patterns are similar to that of Japan's in a way that they play as a team, unlike other South American teams like Brazil and Argentina.....

But, Japan have the capability to surprise bigger teams, and it's time for Paraguay to face Blue Samurais!!!

Posted by Tetsuka on 06/29/2010

Good luck Team Japan! I'll be cheering for you throughout the match!

Posted by Matthew Seligman on 06/29/2010

Japan have proved that England's lucky win against them in the friendlies was just that, a lucky win...they are a better and more entertaining team than us and I wish them all the best to the semis!

Posted by China Boy on 06/29/2010

Japan jia you. wo heng ni men. wo men zhong guo ren shi bu hui yuan lian ni men.

Posted by Rm on 07/12/2010

Has Japane won the Asian Cup more than once

Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 07/12/2010

@Rm, yes, Japan has won it three times. In 1992 when they hosted, and in 2000 and 2004.

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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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