Japan given cause for optimism as they tackle Paraguay's faltering challenge


Paraguay v Japan: Today, Pretoria, 3pm, ITV1

There was a time when Takeshi Okada looked the closest thing to a Japanese Ally McLeod, the man whose prediction that he would lead Scotland to the 1978 World Cup disappeared the moment an unknown Peruvian called Teofilo Cubillas strode up to take a free-kick. Sir Alex Ferguson, who succeeded McLeod as manager of Aberdeen, has a dictum that a football manager must take the most optimistic assessment of any given situation. However, when Okada predicted that Japan would reach the semi-finals in South Africa, eyebrows were raised inch by inch as Japan delivered one dreadful warm-up game after another which even led to the Japanese sports minister questioning the manager's mindset.

Okada is now two matches away from fulfilling his prediction and if he had to choose an opponent to meet at the Loftus Versfeld for a place in the quarter-finals, he could not have done much better than Paraguay, although his opposite number in Pretoria this afternoon, Gerardo Martino, would probably say the same. Nevertheless given the tensions that have riddled relations between Japan and South Korea since the Second World War, it was something when the South Korean premier, Lee Myung-bak, told his opposite number that he hoped Japan would go through to the quarter-finals as "Asia's representatives."

There was probably a method in what seemed Okada's madness. When reviewing the 2002 World Cup, the only previous time Japan have reached the round of 16, the squad recalled their French coach, Philippe Troussier, telling them that they had "fulfilled every goal" by qualifying from their group. Players said complacency set in and they lost 1-0 to Turkey while their co-hosts, South Korea, marched on to the semi-finals.

Okada likes to think of himself as a master of football tactics, although as Japan prepared for the World Cup with an embarrassing home defeat to South Korea, Troussier accused him "of the stupidity of thinking Japan can play like Spain or Brazil."

They haven't yet but Okada's reputation as a tactician seemed to be justified when he pushed Keisuke Honda into attack, and – as his forward Yoshito Okubo remarked – the defeat by England in Graz, in which Japan put through their own net twice, seemed to jolt them into action. "It made us realise what we needed to do to compete at that level," he said.

They were fortunate in their opponents for their opening game in Bloemfontein. Facing Cameroon, the highest-ranked team in Africa, appeared a daunting proposition but few realised how riven and close to disintegration Paul Le Guen's side was and his decision to play Samuel Eto'o on the right wing not only angered Cameroon's outstanding striker, it played into Japan's hands.

"Coming into the World Cup the players were not at their best," Okada said. "Quite a lot of things were not going well at the turn of the year so I had to make some radical changes. They worked but the most important thing was beating Cameroon. If we hadn't done that, it would have changed everything."

And now they face a Paraguay side who after a fine opening display against Italy in Cape Town produced a goalless display against New Zealand which Martino described as one of the worst attacking performances he had seen. The opportunity for Okada is there.

Japan's record against South American sides is predictably poor. Okada was in charge in 1998 when they were beaten by Argentina, a defeat that would prove less embarrassing than a 2-1 loss to the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica, and four years ago they were beaten by Brazil. But Paraguay are no Argentina and they are no Brazil.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice