Ivory Coast vs. Japan: 6 Things We Learned
Wilfried Bony and Gervinho scored the goals to earn Ivory Coast a 2-1 comeback win over Japan on Saturday after Keisuke Honda opened the scoring in Recife.
A spirited Japan side started the first half strongly with Honda scoring a peach of a goal, while Alberto Zaccheroni's men were disciplined defensively and well organized positionally.
As the game wore on, however, Ivory Coast grabbed a stranglehold of the proceedings as their East Asian opponents began to tire. Didier Drogba's introduction midway through the second half galvanized the African side and unsurprisingly led to their two quickfire goals.
Here are six things we learned from Ivory Coast's battle with Japan on Saturday.
Keisuke Honda Is a YouTube Footballer
Many fans use YouTube highlights to learn about potential signings and highly rated footballers, and in that context, Keisuke Honda would be considered one of the best in world football.
Skipping away from the Ivory Coast defence after collecting the ball from Yuto Nagatomo, Honda laced his left boot through the ball and into the roof of the Elephants' net, in the process becoming Japan's top goal-scorer ever in the World Cup finals, with three.
The goal itself could've been added to our compilation of Japan's top five World Cup moments ever, such was its quality.
But the rest of the match gave away exactly why Honda hasn't lit up the big leagues just yet. His lethargic work rate and laziness in defence, as well as his sloppy passing and uninspired final third betrayed a lack of desire and fight, especially when his team were down.
Put it this way: Keisuke Honda isn't going to lift AC Milan out of their dysfunction and poor form by himself.
Japan Has a Host of Underperforming Stars
It wasn't just Honda, though. Even when Japan were on top in the first half, it was down to a collective defensive discipline and quick positional recovery in the back four rather than any scintillating attacking display.
Which, considering that the Samurai Blue boast the likes of forwards Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, as well as attacking full-back Nagatomo, made for curious and disappointing viewing.
Okazaki was completely isolated from the proceedings, while Kagawa continued his abject form for Manchester United last season. Nagatomo, who found many fans and earned a transfer to Italy after an exciting World Cup campaign in 2010, was nowhere to be found.
For a squad brimming with quality and top-level experience, Japan should have had much more on-field leadership looking to inspire their team.
Alberto Zaccheroni Needs to Take Some of the Blame Too
A decent start to the game for Japan was marred by questionable decisions from Alberto Zaccheroni as well, as his substitutions were debatable at best.
Having witnessed striker Yuya Osako struggling to get into the game during the first half, the Japan coach failed to make a change to inject more life and energy up front, instead waiting until the 67th minute before introducing Yoshito Okubo for Osako.
The disappointing Kagawa was also kept on until the 86th minute before coming off for highly rated Yoichiro Kakitani, who just didn't have time to turn things around for a fast-sinking Japan.
But arguably the biggest head-scratcher was Zaccheroni's decision to take captain Makoto Hasebe off for veteran playmaker Yasuhito Endo, removing a physical anchor in the midfield and replacing him with a lightweight creative, just as the conditions began to take their toll on both sets of players.
Physical Conditioning a Crucial Factor in Brazil
Besides the tactical and personnel disappointments, the match conditions also played a big part in Japan's downfall on Saturday.
A combination of heat and rain showed in Japan's play, as they slipped from an effervescent display in the first half to toiling about and visibly losing stamina and pace in the second.
Samurai Blue had relied on a combination of organization, decision-making and positional intelligence to overcome a potential physical mismatch against Ivory Coast in the first half, but eventually the physical battle mattered as well.
By contrast, the Elephants' physical superiority was clear for all to see in the second 45 minutes, as they won every battle in the air and on the ground.
Just as we witnessed in Manaus when the England players began to tire and cramp up in even hotter conditions, Japan's performance showed that physical conditioning will be just as important as the technical side of the game in this summer's World Cup.
The Didier Drogba Effect
While Japan have themselves to look at for their ultimate failing in the match, Sabri Lamouchi deserves credit for keeping Didier Drogba on the bench until his services and influence were needed.
The direct running of Gervinho, Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony had given the Japanese defence plenty to think about; all that was missing was the final ball, the decisive finish and a crowd-lifting aura.
So even after Bony missed a few good chances, Lamouchi opted not to remove the Swansea City striker, but rather send on Drogba for Serey Die in an attempt to influence the proceedings.
It worked. A Drogba goal would've been the predictable outcome, but just slightly below that on the inevitability scale was Bony taking a leaf out of Drogba's book of fine headers to hand Ivory Coast the equalizer.
98 seconds later, Gervinho headed in the winner.
All of this started six minutes after Drogba was introduced to an increasingly bland game of football.
In six minutes' time, Drogba managed to rouse both the crowd and his own teammates. Not bad for a substitute.
Ivory Coast and Japan's Chances Have Been Clarified
Elsewhere in Group C, Colombia notched a convincing and clinical win over Greece in Belo Horizonte on Saturday, taking the South Americans to top spot in the group.
The attacking firepower, energy and pace of Colombia will be a threat to any side in Brazil this summer, not to mention their group-stage opponents, while Greece didn't show much of a cutting edge at all in a limp loss.
Ivory Coast, with their physical edge and variety of strong options off the bench, surely look favorites to qualify from Group C alongside Colombia, especially given the impressive manner of their comeback against Japan.
But Japan will have want to show that they're the best in Asia and will look to dispatch of Greece and put up a good fight against surefire favorites Colombia.
To do that, though, they will need their stars and leaders to fire.