With one point to their name in Group C, Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni accepts that things have not gone to plan for his side so far at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Two quick goals were their downfall against Côte d'Ivoire, while a wall of ten Greeks proved impenetrable, meaning their meeting with an already-qualified Colombia arrives with a decisive tone. Their performances have not been well received back on the streets of Tokyo and the Italian tactician admits he has not got it right in Brazil.
“I knew anything could happen, because in such an important competition it is very difficult to find the right balance in order to perform well," Zaccheroni told FIFA.com. “I was hoping to find this straight away, but in fact we didn't manage to find the tactical and psychological balance we needed to impose our playing style. We went to Brazil with an idea in mind and tried to combine our quality and speed. I have to acknowledge that we haven't been able to find this balance so far.”
With their game at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba against the on-song Cafeteros (Coffee Growers) fast approaching, the former AC Milan and Inter Milan coach realises that time is ticking to get them in shape. With qualification out of their hands, they need a favour from the Greeks against Les Elephants to have a chance at pipping the Africans to second place.
“We are trying to prepare for it the best we can, on a technical, tactical and also psychological level,” Zaccheroni explained. “So far we haven't proved ourselves up to the expectations we all had. So we will try in these few days to prepare so that in the following match we will be 'wearing our Sunday best', so to say."
Fans who saw the goalless draw with Greece, where Fernando Santos' side were down to ten men for over 45 minutes of the game, will no doubt feel their often elegant wardrobe was far from utilised, being more dress-down Friday than Sunday best. With more than two-thirds of the possession and almost three times as many passes as their European opponents, they were still unable to unlock their defence.
As a result, Zaccheroni felt the need to defend the football he has brought to Asia since the departure of Takeshi Okada following South Africa 2010 in the wake of the game.
“I have been the coach of Japan for four years now, and during that timespan we've played more than 50 games," he said. "50 games are generally enough to understand who we are and who we are not. Of course, every team has got their ups and downs and we have had ours in the past.
“I based my job on my personal experience, but I also took into account Japanese culture and the peculiarities of Japanese players. I tried to provide them with the features that can help them to be more competitive on a global level. Before the World Cup we were conceding more goals than we are now. But that was not what we were aiming for, as we are always focused on creating more and more chances to score.”
To the Italian's credit, with 55 per cent, no coach in Japan's history has a better percentage of wins after leading Japan more than 30 times, while only Ken Naganuma and Zico have accumulated more victories. Even so, he admits his position with the team will be up for discussion at the end of their time in Brazil.
"I have an ongoing four-year contract with the Japanese Football Association where this World Cup will be the end of that cycle,” Zaccheroni said. “We will talk about my future after the World Cup.”
To delay those talks a little longer though, the northern Italy native will be hoping his key figures can shine. Shinji Kagawa has been so far unable to find his best form, while Keisuke Honda has not hit the same heights as he did four years ago, with Zaccheroni feeling they and the rest of his side are struggling for cohesion in the face of expectations.
“Pressure is something that is put on players during every World Cup and they have to live with that,” the coach of 30 years conceded. “I do not think Keisuke is suffering from pressure more than the others. I think they are all failing to find the appropriate tactical, mental and psychological balance. In Italy we say that there is no spark, meaning that we are lacking in confidence and excitement.”
Be it spark or balance they need to find to click in Brazil, there will be plenty of travelling fans in the sold-out stands of the Arena Pantanal who hope they finally discover it – and will be praying it's not too late to reach their goal of the Round of 16.