Japan suffered a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Italy on Wednesday in what was without doubt the most entertaining match of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup so far. But despite the fact that the result eliminated Japan, the net outcome could be positive for the Samurai Blue.
In taking an early 2-0 lead and outplaying Italy for most of the match, Japan showed an ability to hang with a traditional international power.
And with a talented, exciting team, Japan could pose a real threat at next year's World Cup—provided they learn some of the lessons Wednesday offered.
Japan will be the team for the hipsters at the World Cup.— Jacob Steinberg (@JacobSteinberg) June 19, 2013
Creativity, Technique, Intensity
First, let's address what went right for Japan.
Alberto Zaccheroni's team raced to a 2-0 lead in the first half by shutting down Italy's impressive midfield, which includes bona fide stars like Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo. Japan showed great intensity in hassling Italy's ball-handlers, ensuring the Azzurri could not settle into a rhythm.
Meanwhile, playmakers like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda were brilliant, troubling Italy's defense with runs, passes and shots from all over the pitch. Such was Japan's dominance that Italy failed to register a shot on target until De Rossi's header made the score 2-1 just before the half.
Japan held 55 percent of possession and outshot Italy 15-11 (11-6 for shots on target), according to FIFA.com's stats. If not for a few bad moments, Japan maintained control of the match and easily could have won.
But if Zaccheroni's team is to contend next summer at the World Cup, those bad moments must be addressed between now and 2014.
This goes to show that Japan are a good team. The amount of technically brilliant players they posses is rather high.— BundesligaLucas (@BundesligaLucas) June 19, 2013
Japan's defense experienced three costly breakdowns. Italy's other goal came on a penalty kick that probably should not have been called.
Late in the first half, De Rossi beat his marker to head home Italy's first goal. Until then, Japan had been dominant and deserved their two-goal lead despite scoring from a fortunate penalty of their own.
Italy equalized early in the second half through Atsuto Uchida's own goal, but Maya Yoshida was to blame for a defensive error in the build-up. Finally, late in the match, Italy scored the winner with a sucker-punch, catching Japan out after a long spell of Japanese pressure.
In order for Japan to compete with—and beat—elite international teams, such defensive lapses will have to stop.
Kagawa and Honda are exciting talents, and Zaccheroni would be wise to build his team around them. Striker Ryoichi Maeda created dangerous moments, but Japan might benefit from a more lethal option to finish off the moves started by Kagawa and Honda.
Farther back, the defense must improve—Japan have allowed seven goals in two matches at the Confederations Cup—but the midfield performance on Wednesday was impressive. By full time, Japan's players looked fresher than Italy's, and even most Italian fans would admit Japan were unlucky to lose.
Luck won't always be a problem. At one point in the second half, Japan hit the upright and the crossbar within seconds. On another day, one of those shots would have resulted in a goal.
Japan's combination of skill, technique and hard work should make them a team to watch next summer, but there's work to be done to turn potential into reality.