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 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.
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.
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.
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.