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20 June 1998 Group H Nantes - Stade de La Beaujoire
Croatia
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.

(0-1) Suker (77). Aljosa Asanovic clipped a cross from the left to the far post where the Croatian record goalscorer was lurking to control the ball and fire home a low left-footed shot which went through the unsighted 'keeper Kawaguchi from 12 yards.

 
 
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Page created by Christakis Ioannou on Saturday, 20 June 1998
 
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