When Italy face Japan at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Japanese captain Makoto Hasebe will have one very specific task. He is the Blue Samurai’s chief defensive midfielder, operating in front of his own back four, and it falls to him to put the brakes on Italy schemer Andrea Pirlo.
In the Southern Europeans’ opening game against Mexico, the Italian master not only scored from a stunning direct free-kick, he imposed his authority on the midfield area and skilfully orchestrated the four-time FIFA World Cup™ winners’ play. And, logically enough, he was named Budweiser Man of the Match.
“Pirlo? He's the brains of the team and an outstanding footballer," Hasebe exclusively told FIFA.com. “We have to get at him early and not allow him to play his game."
The plan is to achieve that while playing a more attacking game than in their opening match. “We were too defensive against Brazil. It's a shame we lost, but they're a strong team and they had the crowd behind them. All of that definitely affected us," said the man from German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, reflecting with some disappointment on his team's first game.
The host nation ran out 3-0 winners after a dominant performance, leaving the Japanese with little chance. “We were massively disappointed and our heads went down at first, but we have to pick ourselves up now," said Hasebe. “We still have games against Italy and Mexico, and if we win both we're through to the semi-finals."
It sounds simple enough, but it is far more problematic in reality, as Wednesday's meeting with the Europeans will be a stern test. “Italy always come up with a great team. They're very organised and solid in defence," Hasebe noted.
His boss Alberto Zaccheroni described the meeting with the Squadra Azzurra as “a bit special", because he is sending his men into battle against his home country. Japan are seeking a first victory over the Italians, “and we'll give it everything", continued the coach. The teams have in fact only met twice in the past, with the Europeans thrashing the Asians 8-0 at the 1936 Olympics, followed 12 years ago by a 1-1 draw.
Even if Japan fail to record a maiden victory in the fixture, they do have one minor consolation. With the exception of hosts Brazil, they differ from the other contenders at the Festival of Champions because they are already safely through to next year's global showdown.
“It's obviously magnificent and we're proud we already have our ticket to the [FIFA] World Cup. So at the moment, this is a dress rehearsal for us, as we get used to the climate, the stadiums and the general environment in a competitive situation. It could give us an edge,” the Wolfsburg man stated.
As part of the get-to-know-you process, the squad is hoping to visit the Japanese community in Brazil, the captain revealed: “I hope we still manage it, but it’ll be tight, because we're not playing in Sao Paulo."
And on top of that, an ideal warm-up programme for the FIFA World Cup would also include a trip to the world-famous Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. If Hasebe and company do in fact manage that at the Festival of Champions, it could mean only one thing: they will be contesting the final on 30 June.
“And why shouldn't we?" Hasebe confidently declared to FIFA.com, although the player is nothing if not realistic: “But there's no point wasting any time thinking about it. We have to take it one step at a time."
Before Blue Samurai start entertaining dreams of the final, they must focus on Wednesday’s challenge. The strategy is to stop Pirlo and beat Italy, “and anything’s possible after that", the Japan captain concluded.