Côte d’Ivoire finally awoke in Recife to trample Japan 2-1 and join Colombia atop Group C in an action-packed match at the Pernambuco on Saturday night. Keisuke Honda had staked the Asian giants to a first half lead, but Serge Aurier sparked two goals in two minutes to blow the game open midway through the second half.
On paper, this was an intriguing matchup. Japan had impressed many with their grace and power at the Confederation Cup last year, memorably losing a 4-3 thriller against Italy that left fans in attendance applauding both teams. Côte d’Ivoire boast one of the more potent attacks in Africa, able to throw Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou at defenses alongside the muscle of one Yaya Toure, arguably the best holding midfielder in the modern game.
That’s why it was a shock to see Drogba consigned to the bench, manager Sabri Lamouchi opting instead for a trident of Gervinho, Bony and Kalou. The Galatasaray man was cleared unhappy with the decision, and it wasn’t until the hour mark that he was called into action.
Yet, for a while it seemed like that decision would not cost the Africans as for all of Japanâs finesse, they struggled against Côte d’Ivoire’s midfield muscle. Yet, as the Africans began to lob shots far and wide — rarely hitting the target — Japan was more economical, and when their chance came, they took it.
The magisterial Honda broke the game open with a blazing goal from the top edge of the area. Yuto Nagatomo sent in a low cross that the Milan man and birthday boy settled with a deft touch, and then sent spiraling past a rooted Boubacar Barry. It was a fine bit of individual play, but it also revealed the limits of Japan’s endeavor: Honda was the only player who looked able to create out of whole cloth, a deficit that manager Alberto Zaccheroni has so far been unable to address.
Yaya Toure tried to haul his team back into the match with a series of rampaging runs but Cote dâIvoire continued to be wasteful. Kalou headed over from six yards in one of the more egregious misses; Bony was one of many who lashed his shot just over Eiji Kawashimaâs bar. Arthur Boka — nominally a defender — was just as involved as the supposed forwards, testing Kawashima early and often but to the same, little effect.
Predictably, it wasn’t until Drogba finally made his appearance — and Côte d’Ivoire started to exploit Japan’s rather dodgy central defenders with direct attacks — that the Ivorians broke through.
Aurier first found Bony with a fine cross whipped in from the right flank that the Swansea man nodded past Kawashima to the far post. Two minutes later, Aurier repeated the feat, this time seeing Gervinho slam home his header at the near post.
Both times Japan’s backs were at sea, allowing Aurier to roam free, but the Japanese had also made a major tactical mistake, allowing the Elephants to run directly at them for the majority of the second half.
From that point on, they looked increasingly confused, reduced to finger-pointing and recriminations as the rain began to slate down on the Pernambuco. Cote dâIvoire continued to press on, with Drogba coming close to grabbing one of his own.
Japan next face Greece in Natal, in what one would think is an eminently winnable matchup for the Asian champs. Côte d’Ivoire will face Colombia in Brasilia, in what could be the matchup of this group, a potential run and gun match in the glare of the Garrincha.
But for now, as expected, the Africans took the spoils. Japan must try to find some defense to go along with Hondaâs guile, if they are to stay alive.