Looking at the headlines in many of the morning's sports tabloids, many people in Japan seem to be surprised by Japan's loss to Iran at Azadi Stadium, on Friday evening. This may be par for the course when it comes to sports coverage in Japan, but it is hardly a reasonable attitude to take. This was always going to be the most difficult match that Japan faced in its group qualification run, and anyone who thinks that it is not difficult to prevail against Iran at the infamous oval in Tehran should put warning labels at the bottom of their articles: Caution - taking this writer seriously may be hazardous to your mental health.
All in all, Japan's performance was not something to decry and denigrate in inflammatory language. They did a very good job of limiting Iran's scoring opportunities, and ended up losing the match only by a single, slightly dodgy goal which simply underlined the difficulties of playing away from home in front of a large and vocal crowd.
Having said that, there were plenty of things to criticize in Japan's performance, and though it may be best to maintain a low key to the criticism, it certainly is not undeserved. At the top of the list would have to be Hidetoshi Nakata, whose first appearance for the National Team in nearly a year simply underlined the reasons why he hasn't been called up for quite some time. He rarely (if ever!) chased back on defense, lost the ball nearly every time he touched it, and snuffed out two or three promising opportunities for Japan with woefully errant passes. If he were just some nameless J.Leaguer called up for a trial in the national team lineup, his performance might not have been considered THAT bad, but for someone who is supposed to be the team leader and the driving force behind the offense, his contributions were pitifully poor. Knowing the starstruck nature of the Japanese press, their will probably find some excuse to overlook this weak performance, but if Zico is wise (and barring a spectacular outing from Nakata in Wednesday's match against Bahrain), he will think thrice before calling the Fiorentina midfielder again.
Not that any one player deserves to be named as the scapegoat in this match. There were several players whose contributions were a bit lacking, and excessive criticism of Japan's performance would simply detract from what was a very solid and impressive performance from Iran. Encouraged by their home crowd, they showed tremendous energy and excellent off-ball movement on the counterattack. It was a credit to the Japanese defense -- particularly the performances of Yuji Nakazawa and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto -- that Iran did not manage a much more emphatic win. The only area where Japan failed to perform as well as it should have was on offense, and while much of this can be laid at the door of Nakata, the two starting strikers, Naohiro Takahara and Keiji Tamada, also turned in rather unconvincing performances. Japan looked most dangerous after Kaji was replaced by Atsushi Yanagisawa, whose movement off the ball and assistance in the build-up created a string of scoring opportunities and led to Japan's equaliser.
The absence of Alessandro Santos was certainly felt on offence, with very few overlaps from the left wing. However, Atsuhiro Miura did a solid job covering Mehdi Mahadavikia on defence, and kept the Hamburg playmaker almost completely out of the action on Iran's attacking end. Of the two wingback, Akira Kaji's performance was a bit less convincing, but this is hardly news to people who have been following the NT for awhile. Kaji actually did not have a bad match -- for Kaji. The problem is that his abilities on both ends are sufficiently mediocre that one cannot avoid the conclusion that there must be SOMEONE available who could do a better job.
Japan put on a very strong showing in the opening 20 minutes, and actually had the slight edge in possession and number of offensive opportunities. However, Iran did a good job of "roughing up" the Japan attackers, using their superior strength and muscle to keep Japan at bay. This was exactly what everyone expected, and over the opening 20-25 minutes it seemed that Japan was doing exactly what it needed to do on both ends. Unfortunately, midway through the first half, Iran's "home advantage" came into play, and put Japan on a difficult footing. First, in a leaping collision about twelve meters outside the penalty box, Ali Daei and Yuji Nakazawa both came down on top of Shunsuke Nakamura, in a thunderous impact that sent Nakamura to the sidelines for medical attention.
While Japan was still shorthanded, Iran took the free kick and swung a low drive for the far (left) post. Miyamoto seemed to have the play covered, but Daei ran right over top of him, knocking him off his feet and out of the play. Hashemian pounced on the loose ball and drove it into the top of the net from point-blank range. In another venue, under other circumstances, it could have been called a foul, but the referee had already incurred the wrath of the crowd, minutes earlier, for carding Karimi on a blatant dive at the edge of the box. While some might want to complain about this non-call, it was pretty typical of what the breaks that home teams can expect to receive in a World Cup qualifier. At the end of the half, this "home assisted" goal was all that separated the two teams, and though their offense was sputtering a bit, Japan seemed to be in reasonably good shape if they could address the difficulties up front.
However, Zico made no changes at half time, which may be part for the course with Zico, but which made no sense to any strategically astute observer. The "strategy" of trying to get penetration on the wings from Nakata and Nakamura, and produce crosses to the two strikers, was clearly not working. It was clearly apparent that Japan needed a dribbler up front (or another dribbler in midfield) if they were going to break down Iran's defence. But for reasons that only he can explain, Zico waited until the 63 minute to make a move, taking off Keiji Tamada and bringing in Atsushi Yanagisawa. The result was almost immediate, with Japan producing a sudden flurry of chances culminating in the equaliser. Whereas Tamada and Takahara had been futilely trying to get behind the Iran defence, Yanagisawa played deeper, and worked with Ono, Nakamura and Nakata to move the ball more rapidly in the attacking midfield. This created more openings in the defence, and drew the back line forward more, resulting in a string of opportunities for Japan. In the 67 minute, Japan took a throw-in from the left sideline, and Nakata lobbed a long ball for the far post. Yanagisawa outjumped his Messina teammate, Ali Rezaei, for the ball, and headed it on for Takashi Fukunishi, swinging in from the right sideline. Fukunishi swung a side kick at the high-bounding ball and drilled it past the keeper, bringing Japan back on level terms.
The remaining 20 minutes of play were the best of the match, with both teams looking to create offense and both getting their chances. But in the 75 minute, an Iran counterattack led by Ali Karimi turned Japan's flank on the right side, and Nakazawa had to rush out to cut off Karimi's progress. Though his initial challenge was successful, Nakazawa failed to clear, and Karimi was able to keep the ball from crossing the end line. A quick chip in front of the net found Hashemian, isolated on the much smaller (and weaker) Kaji. Hashemian easily won the aerial battle, heading home Karimi's cross and giving Iran the lead once more.
Though Japan made a few late forays, Iran were content with this result, and began tightening up the formation to play defense. This succeeded in snuffing out the opportunities that Japan had been creating, a few minutes earlier, and even the late entry of Masashi Oguro failed to produce any late-match heroics. All in all, one has to say that this was a fitting result. Iran played very well, and exploited the advantages they were bound to enjoy in the home leg of this tournament. Japan did not play brilliantly, but neither did they exhibit any major failings (apart from the inability of Nakata and the strikers to produce many chances from an unfamiliar attacking formation). Clearly, it was a mistake for Zico to adjust his strategy and adopt a 4-4-2, since this did not make Japan any more effective on the offensive end than they have been in recent matches with a 3-5-2. On the other hand, we do not concur with the interpretation that some tabloids have mate -- that Zico adjusted his formation merely to suit Nakata. On the contrary, this was probably more a decision driven by two factors that are completely unrelated to Nakata's participation or non-participation in the NT. First, Zico had to address the absence of Santos -- who is most comfortable at midfield wing -- and opted to replace him with Miura -- a more defensive player who is most comfortable at the wing back spot. Furthermore, Iran's 4-3-2-1, with two extremely clever dribblers on the wings (Hashemeian and Mahadavikia) requires a lot more defensive support on the sides of the pitch. As it was, this strategy worked quite well on the defensive end. Iran's first goal was on a set play (and probably was "assisted" by a non-call from the referee), and their second goal came on a counterattack which caught Fukunishi too far forward to help out in covering the middle.
It is not the formation that failed, but rather, the performance of Japan's attacking unit. Once again, even though the strikers bear a large share of the blame for this weak performance, we cannot help but conclude that Japan are a better team WITHOUT Hide Nakata. Every major achievement by the NT over the past 6 years has come when Nakata was out of the squad, and while some may think he has superior ball control skills than players like Ono, Nakamura and Mitsuo Ogasawara, the simple fact is that the team's chemistry suffers whenever he is in the lineup. Many people will be taking this result as an excuse to revive the harrangue about the wings (particularly Kaji) and the strikers. While these are issues that may benefit from a re-evaluation, we cannot help but point out the team's very impressive won-lost record over the past year, when Nakata was not in the lineup. It is not as if Japan lacks in talent at midfield. There is no reason why Zico should be making unneeded adjustments in order to accommodate a player, simply because he happens to have a famous name.