They say that consistency helps in football. Especially in terms of number of players you use. This seems to be one of Japan’s tactics, as they enter this game with the same XI that began each of the group games with. Paraguay give first starts to Edgar Benitez and Nestor Ortigioza, as they become the sixteenth and seventeenth players to start for the South Americans (with two others having played as substitutes). Ortigoza makes his World Cup debut, leaving Dario Veron and Rodolfo Gamarra as the only two outfield Paraguayans to see any action. This is an ideal game to see if consistency is a better plan than rotation, as history sees these two sides equally matched. The World Rankings see Paraguay fourteen places ahead of Japan, but the South American teams get a slight advantage in the World Rankings due to the number of World Cup Qualifying games that they play – Japan may play more friendlies, but these as less valuable than competitive games (especially World Cup games) as far as FIFA’s rankings. A more reliable barometer is the head to head games between the two. The two nations didn’t meet until 1995, when Paraguay won in Tokyo. However since, then it’s Played 5 Japan won 1, Paraguay won 1, Drawn 3. These teams are nicely matched.
In fact, maybe they’re too matched, as they cancel each other out. Yoshito Okubo’s shot clears the bar in the first minute, and Daisuke Matsui makes the most abysmally late foul of the tournament on Cristian Riveros (one and a half yards from the ball according to half time) in the second minute. It’s almost so late as to miss the player. Referee Frank De Bleecker takes pity and keeps his cards in his pocket. That’s the only action of note until eighteen minutes later. It is a cautious midfield passathon. Paraguay are slightly more adventuorous, but the Japanese team is so organised defensively, that there’s very little to say. It’s not what you would call scrappy, because there aren’t many mistakes, but the defences are better than the forwards. It needs a bit of skill to unlock a defence, and on twenty minutes, Paraguay almost manage it. Lucas Barrios turns past Yuichi Komano, and fires a shot that Eiji Kawashima does well to parry. To prove how well matched they are, Japan have a shot, almost in retaliation. Daisuke Matsui hits a long (and I mean, long) shot, that crashes off the crossbar. Justo Villar looks like he may have got the slightest fibre of his gloves to, but his contact (if there is any) makes no difference. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, commentating for ITV claim this close shot (plus their goals from free kicks against Denmark) is because the J-League has been able to use the ball, but South Korea have been just as accurate, and I believe they use a Nike ball. Far East players of the current generation have been exposed to completely different techniques of coaching (compared to say, young England players), and aren’t taught to hammer the ball as though they are the second coming of Stuart Pearce. The only other real chance of the half sees Cristian Riveros win a header from a corner for Roque Santa Cruz to shoot wide, under great pressure from Keisuke Honda.
The second half is more of the same. Paraguay bring on Nelson Haedo Valdez in an attempt to press the Japanese defence further, but nothing of any note happens until the 67th minute. And then it’s goalmouth action of the worst kind. Kawashima leaps high to claim a corner, and in doing so knees team-mate Tulio in the head (the contact is not to dissimilar to Mark Bosnich’s foul on Jurgen Klinsmann, the night Eric Cantona jumped into the stand 100 miles or so away at Selhurst Park). Tulio eventually comes round, and after a bit of treatment is able to continue. Yuto Nagamoto tugs Ortigoza back, and gets a flailing elbow, a yellow card and a one match ban for his troubles. If Japan win, they will have to make a change to their starting XI. The chances are still few and far between, and mainly in the form of low crosses aimed across the face of the goal, but they’re generally finding the first or second defender. Even the poor backpasses are being recovered by the keepers. It is very easy to see why half of the previous games between these two have been draws. Peter Drury describes those still watching at the 80 minute point as “World Cup junkies”, and he’s right (assuming any watchers have been here since the beginning). This has become a game for the completist, it’s the last Panini sticker in the album, rather than foil backed team badge. Our second bad clash in the second half sees an aerial challenge between Villar and Okubo, with Okubo’s challenge being as bas as the one in the second minute. He leads with his right boot, and both players look to be in agony, but after a minimal stoppage, both players are up. It was an awful, sneaky challenge that deserved a booking. One man who is booked, is Keisuke Honda deep into injury time, very harshly for handball.
Extra time. Barrios heads a chance straight at Kawashima. I think that’s the first save in 75 minutes. It’s not long before another. Claudio Morel slips the ball through to Valdez, who turns. Kawashima comes in and blocks, and it begins a scramble on the edge of the box that Japan struggle to clear, and Paraguay struggle to take advantage of. Honda tries a free kick from the left hand edge of the area that Villar puts round the post (when the shot is already gong wide). Barreto hooks a shot just over the bar, with Tulio trying to block, and I’d like to say that we finally have a game on our hands, but that might jinx it. Too late. Although that two minute flurry brought more goalmouth action than in normal time. In the second period of extra time, Japan have a glorous chance. Tulio is dispossessed by Paulo Da Silva, whose interception lands at an advancing Shinji Okazaki, Okazaki backheels past two defenders back to Tulio, who tries a cross-shot across the face of goal. Tulio should have scored, Villar is nowhere, and Nakamura would have struggled to miss the open goal had the ball gone anywhere near him. It’s the best chance of the game. It’s the last chance of the game. Penalties. At least we’ll get shots, and at least one goal, although I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody won 1-0. Paraguay were huddled before their penalties, Japan’s coach went wandering, and seemingly left it to Tulio to organise everything.
Paraguay are up first.
Edgar Barreto scores. 1-0.
Yasuhito Endo scores. 1-1.
Lucas Barrios scores (although Kawashima was close). 2-1.
Makoto Hasebe scores. 2-2.
Cristian Riveros scores (very coolly taken). 3-2
Yuichi Komano hits the crossbar. So near, so far.
Hadeo Valdez scores (straight down the middle as hard as he can). 4-2
Keisuke Honda scores (calm, composed). 4-3
Every Japanese player is on their knees in unison.
Oscar Cardozo rolls it into the net to the keepers right, and Paraguay are through. 5-3.
There was nothing to choose between rotation and consistency in the end. That’s another experiment for another day. Paraguay deserved to go through, based on their approach to the game, if nothing else, but we’ll remember the Japanese for their group stage exploits, and their wonderful free kicks, but for this afternoon, it’s over. Now let’s all try and pretend the last three hours just didn’t happen.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.