|Once again Japan's footballers did themselves and their supporters proud, but
once again they went down by the single goal in this 1-0 Group H defeat by
Croatia in the Stade de La Beaujoire, Nantes. Every great side in football, at
whatever level, has a goalscorer that they can rely on and the difference between
these two sides was the Croatian striker Davor Suker, who scored the only goal
of the game with just 13 minutes left on the clock. Japan were in desperate need
of a result following their narrow 1-0 defeat against Agentina in their World Cup
baptism, whilst the Croatians had comfortably disposed of Jamaica in a coolly
efficient manner. Croatia were without their influential skipper Zvonimir Boban
due to a calf injury and the captain's armband was worn by Suker, their all-time
record goalscorer. With both sides fielding similar 3-5-2 formations the early part
of the match was a little bogged down in a cluttered midfield, with Goran Juric
doing an effective man-marking job on Japan's playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata.
Japan received an early warning as to the striking power of Suker who went
close with an 18-yard header, before firing inches over from 15 yards following
clever play by Robert Prosinecki and then saw a curling 25-yard free-kick just
shave the post, all in the first 15 minutes. The Japanese again played some neat,
passing football but lacked the cutting edge in front of goal despite working the
ball into some great positions. In Masashi Nakayama they have a prolific
goalscorer in club football who, as yet, has not been able to bring his striking
talents onto the world stage. However, he almost put Japan into the lead after 33
minutes when sloppy play from Prosinecki gave possession to Nakata and his
pass into the path of the striker saw the 'keeper Drazen Ladic stick out a big left
hand to deny the goalbound effort. Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic has
labelled his side the "Brazil of Europe", believing they will reach the Final and
play France, but on this first-half showing they will need to take their chances
more clinically and provide better support for the always dangerous Suker.
Goran Vlaovic replaced Igor Stimac for the start of the second half to play
alongside Suker, but it was all Japan in the opening 20 minutes after the break.
An invasion of 15,000 Japanese fans had converged on Nantes with many forced
to watch the match on big screens, having fallen victim to a ticket scam, and those
in the stadium screamed their team forward in search of their first world cup goal.
However, time and again the final ball let down their tidy approach play as they
outfought, outran, outpassed and outplayed Croatia. Blazevic replaced
Prosinecki, who was one of a number of players toiling in the heat, and brought
on Silvio Maric, with this change seemingly having the desired effect as Croatia
raised their game and took control of the match. Suker chipped delightfully over
Kawaguchi only to see his wonderful effort bounce onto the top of the crossbar
and over to safety. Then on 77 minutes he made it 32 goals in 38 games for his
country when firing home left-footed following Aljosa Asanovic's accurate cross.
The goal seemed to knock the wind out of the Japanese sails and apart from a
late headed effort from substitute Wagner Lopes, they were left to rue their
inability to have won a match that was there for the taking in that early
second-half spell. The result now sees Croatia topping the Group H table with six
points and have booked their passage to the second stage, whilst Japan will be looking to hopefully salvage
their first win from their last group match against Jamaica.