Coach Alberto Zaccheroni must urgently find a way to unlock Japan’s attacking potential against already-qualified Colombia on Tuesday but is relying on events elsewhere if his side are to reach the World Cup last 16.
Japan came to Brazil with their hopes high after finishing ahead of Australia in their Asian qualifying group, aiming to better their impressive last-16 showing in South Africa.But little has gone right for the Blue Samurai since they started brightly against Ivory Coast, taking an early lead through Keisuke Honda only to concede twice.
Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa was relegated to the bench for the next game against Greece and although he came on in the second half, the match finished in a drab 0-0 draw.
After the stalemate against 10-man Greece a frustrated Honda was damning about the team’s lack of creative spark.
“We lack ideas,” Japan’s bleach-blond talisman told local media. “We tried to attack but we just can’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
It means the side’s destiny is out of their hands ahead of their match in the heat of Cuiaba. Colombia are already assured of a place in the next round after two victories in Group C while Ivory Coast, who meet Greece in Fortaleza on Tuesday, have three points.
Greece and Asian champions Japan have one point apiece, though Greece’s goal difference is inferior.
Scratching his head for answers, on Saturday Zaccheroni gave his players, based in Itu, time off at short notice, hoping the break would enable them to recharge their batteries.
The veteran Italian said despite the disappointing start in Brazil he was feeling “pretty positive” ahead of Tuesday’s match, even though he bemoaned their lack of attacking zest.
“We haven’t had enough speed in our play and it’s as though the players have been playing with the brakes on,” he said. “The problem is probably mental. We’re not satisfied with our performances so far. This team has given lots of joy and satisfaction in previous matches over the past four years so I’m hoping we can show that good part of our football against Colombia.”
It’s a very different story for Colombia, buoyant after dispatching Greece 3-0 and then beating Ivory Coast 2-1 to clinch a last-16 place for the first time since 1990, when they boasted the likes of Rene Higuita and Carlos Valderrama.
Japan will hope that, having secured qualification, Colombia will ease off the throttle, but goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima does not believe his side’s task will be made any easier. Colombia are missing Monaco striker Radamel Falcao through injury in Brazil but his club team-mate James Rodriguez has made up for his absence, scoring twice so far.
As well as filling the gap left by his Monaco teammate, Rodriguez also wears the symbolic number 10 shirt once worn in style by Valderrama. “The responsibility weighs more on me, but I am not alone,” said Rodriguez.
“I hope to have a good World Cup. Why can’t we be the revelation of the tournament? I hope we will be,” he added.
Colombia, ranked eighth by FIFA, are making their first appearance in the World Cup finals since 1998. Their last-16 showing in Italy in 1990 was the only time until now they have made it out of the group stage.
Following the win against Ivory Coast, coach Jose Pekerman said he was delighted with his side’s form. “It gives me great pleasure that we have come through a tough encounter and we have six points from six,” he said.