Cardozo double gives Paraguay the edge in seven-goal thriller (4:3)
Thirty-three-year-old Jose Cardozo was the inspiration behind Paraguay's riveting 4-3 Group B victory over Japan in Thessaloniki on Thursday. The Toluca striker, one of the South American side's over-age players, scored twice and despite a determined second-half fightback by the Asians, it was enough to give Carlos Jara's side the three points.
After yesterday's sell-out there was a sparse crowd at the Kaftanzoglio stadium with the number of Japanese photographers appearing to outnumber that of locals. A few hundred travelling Japanese supporters had made it up to Greece's north and with their cries of "Nippon", drums and Rising Sun flags, created some much needed atmosphere.
Paraguay, battle-hardened after their skirmishes with virtually the same team in the Copa America last month, did not seem to mind and took the lead after five minutes when a cross from the left arrived at the feet of Pablo Gimenez, who blasted home (1-0).
The tenacious Yasuyuki Konno, who impressed during last year's FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE, had already volleyed wide before he cleverly chipped a ball into the box where after a scramble, veteran defender Carlos Gamarra was adjudged to have brought down Daiki Takamatsu. Shinji Ono coolly sent Diego Barreto the wrong way with the spot kick (1-1, 22).
At the age when many international players are considering retiring, Cardozo and Gamarra, both 33, are showing their continuing commitment to the national team and passing on invaluable lessons to the U-23 team. Directing play with an enthusiasm the equal of anyone on the park, it was the former who grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck. First fortuitously, deflecting in an Edgar Barreto free kick (2-1, 26), then with a poachers' goal after Gimenez had mishit his own shot (3-1, 37).
"Their (Cardozo and Gamarra) experience helps the team so much," said Jara after the match.
Without the scars of competing in their own continental championship, Japan were looking a bit raw in comparison, but they came out for the second half with more purpose and they were rewarded when the Egyptian referee awarded them a second penalty. Barreto went to his left this time, but Ono chose right (3-2, 53).
Yamamoto Masakuni's side were suddenly on top and Koji Marisaki fired just over as they charged forward in search of the equaliser. It left them open to the counter and, in the best action of the match, goalkeeper Hitoshi Soghata pulled off a superb save at full stretch from a rasping 25-yarder from Aureliano Torres. A few minutes later the left winger got another sight of goal and this time the keeper could do nothing about it as his thunderbolt hit the top corner (4-2, 62).
The Asians refused to give up though and from a Yoshito Okubo cross, Takamatsu saw his diving header hit the inside of the post. Cardozo almost claimed his hat-trick before Japan reduced the arrears once again. Okubo toe poked home from inside the area after a burst down the left by the impressive substitute Tatsuya Tanaka (4-3, 81).
Late headers from Markus Tulio Tanaka and Sota Hirayama almost snatched an equaliser but there was to be no last act in a gripping duel.
"The three points were crucial and we have made some giant strides today," said an emotional Jara. "We were not at our best at the beginning or the end but when the players tried, we were the better team."
Japan's coach Makasuni bemoaned a lack of fitness for his players' below par first half. "We changed things around at half-time because their 7 (Gimenez) was dangerous. It meant Ono came deeper and without his thrusts late on, we just couldn't get the equaliser."