Japan were knocked out of the Confederations Cup on goal difference tonight after a 2:2 draw with Brazil sent the world champions through to face Germany in Saturday’s semi-final.
The heroic last stand of the Japanese will go down as one of their finer performances of recent years however and but for a controversial offside call in the first half they might yet still be in the competition.
Going in to this game Zico’s men could have adapted the title of a James Bond film as their motto: ” A Draw is Not Enough”, knowing Brazil’s superior goal difference would take them through in the event of a tie. Thankfully for the 44,922 on hand in the Rhein-Energie Stadion, both sides gave good value for money with skilful play and top-notch goals in a game difficult to take one’s eyes off.
The opening exchanges saw Kaka, Ronaldinho and Adriano rev their turbo-charged engines with hints of things to come but Japan shocked probably even themselves by netting in the fourth minute. Mitsuo Ogasawara released Akira Kaji on the right and the flying wing-back hit the ball firmly into the corner for what looked a valid goal only for the referee’s assistant to hoist a late flag. TV replays would later show this was a far from conclusive call.
A minute later Adriano fired off his first salvo of the evening, hitting the side-netting from a Leo assist and soon the game assumed a frenetic end-to-end character. Any side that allows Kaka and Ronaldinho the space and time Japan did in the first half invites trouble and the inevitable goal arrived after ten minutes’ play. Ronaldinho set off on what would be several counter-assaults during the evening with only Robinho in support but soon found three teammates had swelled the attack to make it five against three.
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dummy to the Japanese defence, the Barcelona man played the ball not to any of the free attackers but to Robinho, who had ‘run a slant’ as they say in gridiron, to lose marker Makoto Tanaka. The Santos star then made no mistake with his finish.
When good sides take the lead a gloomy inevitability often afflcits their opponents who respond by taking risks but to Japan’s credit they stayed calm and continued to pass the ball patiently and along the ground, a virtue perhaps distilled in them by their Brazilian coach and the wider Brazilian influence on Japanese soccer.
Their diligence paid off when Atsushi Yanagisawa headed against the crossbar after twenty-four minutes and Shunsuke Nakamura drew them level on twenty-seven. The Man of the Match against Greece (and again tonight) in fact produced a stunning strike worthy of Adriano’s wonder-goal against the same opponents. Having been picked out by Takashi Fukunishi thirty-five yards from goal, the Reggina midfielder looked up before launching an unstoppable rocket of a shot past a flailing Marcos. No one present could have failed to be astounded by a moment of sublime footballing spectacle.
Sadly for Japan their euphoria would last for only six minutes and once again it was down to the wizard Ronaldinho weaving his magic, which makes you think he is a good bet to be the star of the World Cup here again next summer. Starting in the centre-circle by hitting the referee with a pass and collecting it again as if that had been his intention, the twenty-five year old advanced menacingly before feeding Robinho on the left and then stretching to collect his return ball and tap it past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
The yellow jerseys were now in full flow, surging upfield again and again like an overflowing river, an unstoppable force of nature no amount of planning and endeavour can contain. As a samba beat resonated from the stands down to the pitch Japan looked second best and were lucky not to go in at the break 3:1 down after a lovely move in the fourtieth minute ended with Kaka curling his shot just over the postage stamp.
Perhaps drunk on their superiority and with the Japanese camped out in their own half, Brazil began to play keep-ball to the giddy ‘ole’s of their own fans but the angry whistles of everyone else, who had bought tickets for an express train and not a sleeper service, even though they reach the same destination.
At the interval Zico showed his determination to defeat his own country by bringing on Koji Nakata and Masashi Oguro and thus pushing talisman Hidetoshi Nakata into a more advanced role to orchestrate the attacks. The blue shirts took to their heels a minute after the restart with Fukunishi putting Atsushi Yanagisawa through on goal but Marcos was quick off his line and blocked the effort. On fifty-five minutes Hidetoshi Nakata had a shot cleared off the line by Cicinho and the chants of ‘NI-PPON!, NI-PPON!’ grew the loudest they had all tournament.
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defence though is attack and they hit back two minutes later when Cicinh0 went close and from the resulting corner Ze Roberto was denied twice, his first a volley that struck Kawaguchi in the face and winded him for a while and his follow-up a shot blocked on the line by Japan skipper Tsuneyasu Miyamoto.
Zico played his final card bringing on Takayuki Suzuki for Yanagisawa and his opposite number Carlos Alberto Parreira took off Adriano, Ze Roberto and Kaka for fresh legs. These switches made both teams lose some of their momentum but Brazil remained the more likely to score again, Ronaldinho dancing past all but the last man on eighty minutes and Robinho turning the badly positioned Tanaka but shooting wide six minutes afterwards, a piece of defending that had Kawaguchi screaming at his right back.
With three minutes left on the clock and Japan needing to score two a chance appeared. Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva tripped Hidetoshi Nakata just outside the D and the kick was delayed for around a minute as players from both sides jostled to gain the best positions for what could have been Japan’s last throw of the dice.
When the kick was eventually taken, Nakamura curled the ball over the wall and against the post. With the Brazilian wall stuck in quicksand, Fukunishi and Oguro were on to the rebound like hares and Oguro smacked the ball into the net although Marcos got a hand to it.
A thrilling finale duly ensued and Japan’s final chance came in injury time as Fukunishi’s crossfield lob found Oguro but the goalscorer’s near-post header was parried away by a relieved Marcos. When the referee blew for full time there were jeers from the crowd, not because the show had been a poor one but because they felt he had blown thirty seconds early and deprived them of a precious few more moments of entertainment in a match no one except the Brazilians wanted to end.