For Japan, anyway. And maybe the US as well.
Sometimes I don't know why I bother being a sports fan. It seems like all I get for my fervent support of my favoured teams is a broken heart, again and again. Last night was a case in point, as I saw Japan get all but eliminated from the World Cup by Australia, and then found that the US had been thoroughly out-classed by the Czech Republic.
I can't talk about the US match, since I did not get to see it (it aired at 01:00, a full hour after the Japan match ended, and I just could not stay awake that long), but I can give you my thoughts on Japan's miserable performance.
Let me start by saying that there was a whole lot of optimism here in Japan yesterday. And why not? Japan has a talented, young side, and they are not missing any key players due to injury. But I was slightly more skeptical than most fans, because I had yet to see Japan demonstrate that their biggest problem had been solved: the lack of any real coherence, especially in the attacking half. And that was what sunk Japan last night.
Australia came out of the gate looking strong, and put together attack after attack, with some skillful passing and great ball control. The first 15 minutes looked very bad indeed for Japan, as the Aussies had most of the ball and looked the more dangerous side. Japan, on the other hand, put together little mini-attacks where one player would dash towards the opponent's goal with the ball, do a bit of decent dribbling, and then pass off to someone else. The problem was that a third player never seemed to be in good position to receive a pass for a real threat on goal.
Japan's defence tightened up a bit, and Australia looked like they were slowing down a bit, so I could relax a bit when they touched the ball, now that the fear that they would score every time they got possession was alleviated somewhat.
In the 26th minute, Shunsuke Nakamura got a fluke goal when he crossed the ball into the area, and the Australian keeper got tangled up with four other players in the goal mouth (two Japanese, two Aussie) and knocked down, allowing Nakamura's cross to float into the back of the net. Sure, in the World Cup, a goal is a goal, and I was mighty happy to get this one, but at the same time, it was not proof positive that the Japanese could score quality goals against strong opposition. And neither was the rest of the first half. While Australia looked practically tame for the remainder of the half, Japan couldn't add a second goal. Same story: decent individual play from the strikers and midfielders in Australia's half, but no solid teamwork of the sort that is required to score goals at the highest level of competitive football.
The second half showed Australia re-committed to the task of scoring goals, and Kawaguchi, the Japanese goalkeeper, was tested time and time again. And was he ever equal to the task! He is credited with six saves in the official statistics, but it seemed like more than that watching the match. Twice, it seemed like Australia was certain to score, but Kawaguchi stretched himself full-length and somehow got a hand to the ball to push it wide of the goal. That should have been great news for Japan; usually when the keeper makes a great save, it energises the team. But Japan still could not put anything together in the attacking half. Other than one screaming shot by Takahara which the Australian goalkeeper was equal to, Japan did not generate any convincing threats on goal.
And that was the writing on the wall, because when one team is threatening constantly, and the other is not, it is just a matter of time before the more dangerous side gets a goal. And when Tim Cahill, Australia's most potent striker, entered the game as a substitute in the 69th minute, the time was nigh. It took Cahill about ten minutes to really warm up, but his presence put even more stress on the overworked Japanese defence, which had barely held against Mark Viduka's excellent play at the front throughout the match. Australia's first goal came in the 84th minute, when Kawaguchi made his second full-length stretching save and a Japanese defender cleared the ball out over the sideline. Australia made a long throw just to the left of the goal, and maybe two metres into the area. This was when Kawaguchi made his one mistake of the match, charging out to intercept the throw, but not getting enough of a fist on the ball to clear it from the area. The ball squirted sideways, and looked for a split second to be shielded by a fallen Japanese defender, before Cahill stepped around him and calmly put the ball in the back of the net.
And if only that were the end of the scoring! I was pissed off enough at being robbed of three points, and having to settle for one point from the draw, but my mood became blacker and blacker in the next five minutes, as Japan continued to disappoint on the attack while Australia seemed to get stronger and stronger. At some point during those five minutes, I realised that Australia was almost certainly going to get another goal. I just hoped that Kawaguchi could find some way to keep denying the go-ahead score. And maybe he could have, if his defenders hadn't completely forgotten how to play.
In the 89th minute, Cahill was left unmarked at the top of the goal area, and he made no mistake from 20 metres to seal the deal for Australia. I pretty much knew that the game was over then, as Japan was incapable of scoring, so John Aloisi's goal in the second minute of stoppage time was just adding insult to injury. And it was a pretty insulting goal, so badly did he beat a Japanese defender at the top of the area before slotting it home confidently from 10 metres or so. Luckily for Japan, that was all the scoring Australia had time for, with the final whistle putting a merciful end to the bloodbath.
Cahill was named Man of the Match, and rightly so. I had to tip my hat to Guus Hiddink, Australia's coach, for deciding to rest Cahill for most of the match, then substitute him in late in the match. Had it not been for his fresh legs, Japan may have been able to hold on for the win, in which case Kawaguchi would have certainly deserved the Man of the Match honours.
The reason that this loss pretty much spells the end of Japan's World Cup campaign is the makeup of the rest of their group: Brazil and Croatia. For Japan to even have a chance of going through to the next round, they will need to beat one of the two and at least draw with the other. Which is not going to happen, because you are not going to hold Brazil to less than two goals, I don't think, and Japan is certainly not going to generate more than one goal a game. At least, not unless they take their defeat at the hands of Australia as a wake-up call and really gel as a team up front, which is very unlikely at this late hour.
I think some of the fault has to lie with Zico, the Brazilian who is coaching Japan, for not building a real attack. Then again, maybe the fault lies more with the people responsible for hiring Zico, as Brazilians are sort of known for great individual skill at the front yielding goals, instead of a dynamic team effort. And sorry to say it, but Japan does not have a Pele, or a Ronaldo, or a Ronaldinho, who can just create goals out of thin air.
As for the US, well, like I said, I did not see the match, so I have no real thoughts on what the US team needs to do to avoid being spectators in the next round, but I will say that they have their work cut out for them. They absolutely must beat Ghana, and then they need some sort of result against Italy, preferably a win.
Ugh. I should just move to Brazil or something, and learn to love the New York Yankees of football. At least I would not be disappointed every World Cup when my teams let me down. At least the US and Japan qualified, unlike Bulgaria and Ireland, my two other favourite teams.