Okada realistic about Japan's tough opening game
December 9, 2009: The first match of a World Cup campaign can often hold the key to a team's prospects for the rest of the tournament.
Win and you are in pole position to advance, with three points on the board and two games to come. Draw and you have a base to build on. Lose and the pressure is on immediately.
Avoiding defeat in the opening match is a must, which is what Takeshi Okada was talking about on his return to Japan from the draw in Cape Town. This is not a negative approach at all by Okada; it is pragmatic and realistic, as a point would give the team confidence and something to work from for the next two games.
In South Africa, Japan will open against Cameroon. Even though the Indomitable Lions are not what they used to be - and have not been for many years - they will still be a formidable foe on African soil and with a massive crowd behind them.
Forget about passing and movement and technique, the most important thing for Japan on that day will be character and spirit; to stand up to the robust and physical Africans and not to be intimidated by their stars of today and tradition of yesteryear.
Although much of the spotlight will fall on Inter striker Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon possess another type of player that Japan badly lacks in a crucial area of the field: Alex Song.
The growing number of Arsenal fans around the world may rave about the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie, Nasri, Walcott, Rosicky and Arshavin, but Song gives the team balance with his brilliant work in the midfield engine room. Still only 22, he plays with a maturity beyond his years at this high level, and he will be the rock Japan's attack will have to work around before they even hope to get a sight of goal.
The fact that Song has also played in the centre of defence for the Gunners shows his strength and his versatility -- the ideal player to protect his defence, to retain possession in midfield and to break up the opposition's flow.
By the time June 14 comes around, Song will know the game of Endo, Hasebe and Nakamura (both of them) inside out, and will be prepared accordingly.
As Okada says, avoiding defeat in the opening game is a priority - and it is going to take a lot more than nice technique and pretty passes to achieve that. I hope Japan are ready for a scrap against a team that will be fired up and playing like men possessed on their own continent.
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