Though goalmouth incidents were in short supply when Japan took on Cameroon in Mangaung/Bloemfontein on Monday afternoon, the physical battle between the sides made for an absorbing encounter.
The Asian side owed their battling 1-0 win to an ability to match the muscle of their more physically imposing opponents, as midfielder Daisuke Matsui explained afterwards: “Cameroon are very strong physically. We had to withstand an awful lot of pressure but we dealt with it.”
Indomitable Lions midfielder Jean II Makoun was drawing similar conclusions after the final whistle, lamenting his side’s failure to find a cutting edge in the final third: “We lacked conviction up front and the Japanese defended really well. They put us under pressure and when it was our turn to exert some on them they refused to buckle.”
The Africans, with Samuel Eto’o, Makoun and Benoit Assou-Ekotto leading the charge, threw everything they had at Japan in the closing stages. The Inter Milan forward showed the odd flash of brilliance, but even he was unable to crack the Japanese rearguard. “We were on a mission to stop him,” said Samurai Blue midfielder Makoto Hasebe, revealing his side’s priorities for the game.
The hard work the Japanese defence have been putting in since arriving in South Africa was clear for all to see. Having shipped nine goals in their four warm-up matches, the Asian representatives put on a resolute display at the Free State Stadium. “Our defenders know each other better now and the coordination between them is much better,” added Matsui in appreciation of the unyielding Japan back-line.
Speeding down the left flank at every opportunity, Assou-Ekotto carried a good deal of the Cameroon threat, sending in a steady supply of crosses for his team-mates. Yet, even at the height of the bombardment, central-defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka refused to buckle. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was full of praise for the defensive pair: “They were absolutely fantastic in the air. The Cameroonians put a lot of balls into the box but they cleared the lot. They have a lot of strong players but we held firm.”
The only time Paul Le Guen’s side came close to beating Kawashima was when Stephane Mbia struck the bar with a fierce long-range drive. “We didn’t have any luck,” lamented the Marseille man, understandably dejected at his side’s inability to outmuscle their smaller but admirably determined opponents.