Though both teams had already booked a spot in the 2006 World Cup, and were playing without a large number of their usual starters, the final match of the Asian zone world cup qualifiers was by no means just a meaningless formality. Understrength though they might have been, it was clear that both teams wanted very badly to win this mathc, and finish atop the group, if only for the sake of pride and the sense of confidence it would provide the winner. The only blemish on Japan's entire world cup qualification campaign, which started almost exactly 18 months ago (on February 18, 2004), was the narrow 2-1 loss to Iran at Azadi Stadium, earlier this year. Apart from that one contest, Japan had claimed every single point from every single match. On the basis of that record, and the fact that Japan has won the last two consecutive (and three of the last four) Asian Cup titles, one might have argued that Japan was Asia's top competitor even before this match took place. But because of the away loss to Iran, and the admittedly high quality of the Persian players, Japan clearly needed to win the return leg if they wanted to eliminate any doubt about who deserves to sit at the head of the table in the AFC.
The result of this contest should banish any doubts whatsoever, for even though Japan's victory was by the same margin as the loss in Iran, the content of play could not have provided a clearer indication of the differences in quality between the two teams. Iranian fans will argue that if both teams had been at full strength, and all players at 100% of their capabilities, the contest would have been much closer. The Rising Sun News is willing to concede this argument. Iran does indeed have some highly talented individual players, who have the ability to transform the character of a match all on their own. In the absence of stars like Mahdi Mahadavikia and Ali Karimi, Iran are not as effective a team, particularly on offence.
But that is exactly the point. It is very rare for a country to make it through an entire World Cup campaign without having some sort of health, injury or disciplinary problem affect at least one or two of its best players. Teams that hope to progress far in such a campaign need to have reserve players who can step in without a severe drop in performance. Of the two teams, Japan was certainly missing more of its usual starters than Iran. But the quality of the reserve players was sufficient to ensure that the team still played at a high level. The difference in the final score line of this match was just a single goal, but the number of shots, time of possession and quality of scoring opportunities favoured Japan to a greater extent than the final score line. When the referee's whistle blew for full time, Japan emerged as the top WC2006 participant from Asia, in every sense of the word.
Though Zico and his players deserve some time to bask in the satisfaction of this success, they would be wise to keep the celebrations short and subdued, because despite a reasonably strong performance against Iran, there were also some obvious concerns that will need to be addressed between now and next June. For one thing, the team did a very poor job of finishing off its chances. Japan has always faced legitimate criticism for their poor finishing skills, and though things may be improving, the number of missed opportunities in this contest was far too high to ignore completely. Masashi Oguro, in particular, had three SEPARATE opportunities to run at the keeper with no defenders in front of him. the first time he was stopped on a lovely reaction save by Mirzapour. The second time, both he and Mirzapour were racing for the ball, with Oguro a half step in the lead. But he tried to blast the ball through the outrushing keeper with sheer force, rather than just tapping a roller along the ground, which probably would have been more effective. The third time, he waited an instant too long to shoot, and the retreating defenders arrived in time to deflect his shot.
Zico faces a more serious problem on the left wing, where Alex Santos did a lot of running, and put in a decent show on defence, but consistently failed to make connections with his teammates when the goal was at their mercy. This, coupled with Keiji Tamada's tendency to run away from the ball rather than towards it, cost Japan at least one and possibly as many as three goals. We have had reason to criticise other players on the team, from time to time, and we are still far from satisfied with the performance of players like Takashi Fukunishi and Makoto Tanaka. However, at least in this match, everyone else at least met the minimum requirements expected of them. Santos and Tamada, on the other hand, failed to do their jobs. It will be very interesting to see what Zico does in the remaining friendly matches this year, because left wing Shinji Murai and striker Tatsuya Tanaka have certainly demonstrated that they can play at the national team level.
The stars of the show were the defensive unit (particularly Yuji Nakazawa, who seems to grow in stature and influence with each passing day), along with midfield playmaker Mitsuo Ogasawara and right wing Akira Kaji. Ogasawara may not have the "flair" of his rivals for the central midfield position, like Shunsuke Nakamura or Shinji Ono, but his vision and passing prowess are nevertheless impressive. In the opening 25 minutes he sliced the Iran defence to ribbons, time and time again, with his lead passes to Tamada and Oguro. If their finishing had been a bit more effective, Japan might have taken a dominant early lead. The main concern that we have with Ogasawara, though, is his lack of mobility. Particularly in the second half, his failure to keep up with the other attacking players caused offensive moves to stall, or allowed the Iran defence to retreat and cut off the danger.
Kaji, meanwhile, has been playing extremely well over the past 4 or 5 months. A year ago, we viewed him as the weakest link on the squad, but now, it is starting to look like he may retain the starting spot at right wing straight through the World Cup. He still does not get his crosses in as effectively as one would like, and we hope that Zico will at least give some other right wingers -- such as Yuji Komano, Hayuma Tanaka or Naohiro Ishikawa -- a look. Nevertheless, Kaji has greatly improved his defensive play, and is also developing a better sense of when to overlap and when to cut to the middle. This has steadily increased his effectiveness over the past year, and it finally paid off on the bottom line in the 34 minute of this contest. For what must have been the fifteenth time in the match, Ogasawara shredded the Iran back line with a through pass which sent Tamada into the left corner. But this time, Tamada did not squander the opportunity. He fired a low, hard cross towards the penalty spot as Oguro cut towards goal. Oguro narrowly missed connections with the ball, but his dash towards the near post pulled the keeper way out of position, and Kaji slipped in at the back post to stuff the ball into an empty net.
Japan had seveal opportunities to extend the lead in the second half, but a combination of poor finishing and ridiculous officiating (are our reports starting to sound a bit repetitious? Well what else would you say when a defender reaches up and deliberately deflects a high cross with his hand, yet none of the three officials blinks an eyelash?) kept the lead to a single goal until the 76 minute. Japan won a corner kick on the left side, and Santos sent a low line drive for the near post. Oguro headed the ball towards the near post, beating the keeper. However, a defender (the same one? Perhaps so, though we cannot be certain) made a diving save and blocked the ball from crossiong the line, with his forearm. It ricocheted around a bit, and may or may not have crossed the goal line, but there was no question that it would have gone in had the defender not used his hand.
Those of you who have spent a bit of time studying the rules of the game will know that the penalty for such an incident would be a red card to the player making the infraction, and a penalty kick to Japan. Instead, for reasons which even Allah the benificent and merciful probably cannot explain, the referee pointed to midfield and awarded the goal. The official scorer credited the goal to Oguro, though clearly the ball did NOT cross the line from his header. It may have gone in off the defender, or perhaps off the keeper, but if that had been the case, it should have been recorded as an own goal. How could the goal be awarded to Oguro, you ask? Well your guess is as good as ours, but it should be obvious that the referee did not want to reduce Iran to ten men AND give Japan a two-goal lead, even if that WAS what the rules called for.
Less than three minutes later, as Iran threw every member of their team forward in a desperate effort to score, Ali Daei went down in the penalty box in response to a very mild challenge by Nakazawa. It wasnt a blatantly bad decision, such as the previous hand-ball-non-call,. However, there was little question that Daei had every intention of going to ground even before he collided with Nakazawa, and a lot of referees (at least those from confederatons like UEFA or CONMEBOL) would have simply waved play on.
But in the end it was all academic. Japan only needed to waste another ten minutes and victory was theirs. The result will provide Zico with some releif from public scrutiny and criticism, at least for the time being, and we have to admit that the team did make it through the qualification round with a fairly impressive record (11 wins, 1 loss and no draws over two phases of qualification). Be that as it may, there are still a lot of legitimate reasons for criticism. Japan has established itself as one of the elite teams in Asia. But if they want to move to the next level, then will need to develop greater consistency, a deadlier scoring touch in front of goal, and a more combative spirit in hard-fought contests.