Japan optimistic against stuttering Paraguay
When Japan manager Takeshi Okada predicted that his country would reach the semi-finals in South Africa, eyebrows were raised inch by inch as Japan delivered one dreadful warm-up game after another which even led to the Japanese sports minister questioning the manager's mindset.
Okada is now two matches away from fulfilling his prediction and if he had to choose an opponent to meet at the Loftus Versfeld for a place in the quarter-finals, he could not have done much better than Paraguay, although his opposite number in Pretoria this afternoon, Gerardo Martino, would probably say the same. Nevertheless given the tensions that have riddled relations between Japan and South Korea since the Second World War, it was something when the South Korean premier, Lee Myung-bak, told his opposite number that he hoped Japan would go through to the quarter-finals as "Asia's representatives."
There was probably a method in what seemed Okada's madness. When reviewing the 2002 World Cup, the only previous time Japan have reached the round of 16, the squad recalled their French coach, Philippe Troussier, telling them that they had "fulfilled every goal" by qualifying from their group. Players said complacency set in and they lost 1-0 to Turkey while their co-hosts, South Korea, marched on to the semi-finals.
Okada likes to think of himself as a master of football tactics, although as Japan prepared for the World Cup with an embarrassing home defeat to South Korea, Troussier accused him "of the stupidity of thinking Japan can play like Spain or Brazil."
They haven't yet but Okada's reputation as a tactician seemed to be justified when he pushed Keisuke Honda into attack, and – as his forward Yoshito Okubo remarked – the defeat by England in Graz, in which Japan put through their own net twice, seemed to jolt them into action. "It made us realise what we needed to do to compete at that level," he said.
They were fortunate in their opponents for their opening game in Bloemfontein. Facing Cameroon, the highest-ranked team in Africa, appeared a daunting proposition but few realised how riven and close to disintegration Paul Le Guen's side was and his decision to play Samuel Eto'o on the right wing not only angered Cameroon's outstanding striker, it played into Japan's hands.
"Coming into the World Cup the players were not at their best," Okada said. "Quite a lot of things were not going well at the turn of the year so I had to make some radical changes. They worked but the most important thing was beating Cameroon. If we hadn't done that, it would have changed everything."
And now they face a Paraguay side who after a fine opening display against Italy in Cape Town produced a goalless display against New Zealand which Martino described as one of the worst attacking performances he had seen. The opportunity for Okada is there.
Japan's record against South American sides is predictably poor. Okada was in charge in 1998 when they were beaten by Argentina, a defeat that would prove less embarrassing than a 2-1 loss to the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica, and four years ago they were beaten by Brazil. But Paraguay are no Argentina and they are no Brazil.