Penalty-shootout drama can't hide sterility of Paraguay-Japan contest
Paraguay and Japan were both tense from the pressure of the knockout stage
Both teams adopted a sterile conservative approach that canceled each other out
Japan relies on Honda for creativity but arguably played him out of position
The millions celebrating in Paraguay won't care, but its penalty-shootout victory over Japan on Tuesday came after probably the worst game of the World Cup so far.
There was much talk of fear, of the sense of occasion becoming too much for two sides that had never reached the quarterfinal before, and maybe there was an element of truth to that. But neither of these sides is naturally creative, and the result was tedium. Paraguay at least took some sort of initiative, and from that point of view probably deserved its victory, but let's not pretend this was anything other than deeply disappointing.
That Paraguay was able to dominate possession came down to its fullbacks, Carlos Bonet and Claudio Morel, who pushed on far more than their Japanese counterparts. Both sides were set up in a basic 4-1-2-3 and, the fullbacks aside, essentially canceled out. In previous matches, Japan had its two wingers, Makoto Hasebe and Yoshito Okubo, pushed wider, but here they tucked in, so they met Paraguay with equal numbers in the center of the pitch, rendering the game frustratingly sterile.
Both sides managed two chances in a first half that kept threatening to burst into life without actually doing so. For Paraguay, Lucas Barrios created a chance for himself with a smart one-two, only to stab his shot straight at Eiji Kawashima; then Roque Santa Cruz fired wide after a corner had fallen for him. For Japan, Daisuke Matsui clipped a snap shot against the bar; then Keisuke Honda, with Okubo well placed outside him, attempted a speculative effort from 25 yards. It was all bitty and lacking in pattern, based on either individual moments of skill or the mistakes of opponents rather than constructive team play. It got worse.
Although Morel became increasingly involved in the second half (he sent over a number of vaguely threatening crosses, one of which Cristian Riveros met with a fine header that flew straight at Kawashima), Paraguay's domination resulted in nothing more than blunt pressure. There was never a sense it might do anything out of the ordinary, never a sense that it could do anything more than go through the motions of spreading the ball out to Morel and letting him cross it.
Yet even that was more than Japan mustered. Marcus Tulio Tanaka put a header just wide from a Yasuhito Endo corner, but that was it. There has been a creative dearth in Japanese football since Hidetoshi Nakata retired in 2006, and although Honda may be the man to give the team that edge, he cannot do so if he is operating at center forward. Such is the dearth of imagination in Japan's midfield that there is no point having him high up the field waiting to convert chances if he is the only player on the team who can create them.
There has been much excitement about Japan's four goals in this tournament, but two were direct free kicks, the winner against Cameroon was an appallingly defended cross to the back post, and the final goal, against Denmark, was created by Honda when Denmark was piling forward seeking a late goal. Honda up front alone is a negative tactic because it allows coach Takeshi Okada to pack his midfield with drones. Endo is the reigning Asian Player of the Year and tends to be spoken of in awed tones, but he seems a facilitator rather than a creator.
That is not to blame Okada, for it's not clear what options he has. Given Japan's pre-tournament form, to win two games and reach the last 16 is an achievement. That it did so playing technically efficient but predictable football is only reprehensible if there's any sense Okada could have done better playing any other way. At least his side was organized and by and large frustrated the opposition: Two goals conceded in four matches is a record to be proud of.
Against Paraguay, he even brought on two forwards in Shinji Okazaki and Keiji Tamada, allowing Honda to drop deeper, but Japan rarely had enough of the ball for that to be a factor, and his side really was undone by the fact that Paraguay was disciplined enough first to stifle it in midfield and then, when Japan had the ball, not to concede free kicks in dangerous areas. When Japan did advance into dangerous areas, it far too often ended up attempting speculative crosses.
That's never a good idea with a lone center forward, and even less so against two center backs as good in the air as Paulo da Silva and Antolin Alcaraz. Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar did make one save from a Honda free kick in extra time -- although the ball looked to be going wide anyway -- but again the balance of the chances went Paraguay's way.
At the other end, Kawashima blocked superbly against Nelson Haedo Valdez, reading Morel's through-pass to advance swiftly from his line, and another Morel cross caused chaos in the Japan box but wouldn't quite sit down for Edgar Barreto. And then, from nothing, Japan had a chance to steal it, Okazaki's back-heel -- a sudden, bewilderingly unexpected moment of invention -- taking out two defenders and setting up Tamada. Cutting in to the left of goal, he could have shot or pulled the ball back for Honda, but in the end he did neither, dinking the ball harmlessly across the six-yard box as panic apparently clouded his thinking.
And so it went to penalties. Poor Yuichi Komano missed, thwacking his effort against the bar, and he will carry the guilt of Japan's failure, but really this was a collective failure of initiative of the sort to which Japanese football has been prone for two decades.
Paraguay, rigorous and tough, has allowed one goal in four games entering the quarterfinals, where a far tougher opponent than the toothless sides it has faced so far awaits.
This wasn't quite as bad as Ukraine's goalless draw with Switzerland at the same stage last year, but it was close.