| Alex and Masashi Oguro of Japan after their defeat
It almost looked like a photo copy of the match 24 hours earlier: Another Asian team folding up like a pack of cards in the final moments of a big game. If it was Iran who surrendered the initiative to Mexico on Sunday, it was Japan’s turn to let in three goals in the final seven minutes and lose to Australia on Monday.
The similarities didn’t end there. It was again a lapse in concentration, which led to a fatal mistake. Goalkeeper Kawaguchi had, in the first 80 minutes, effected four superb saves. Then, with his team leading 1-0, he decided to leave charge to intercept a long throw-in, but came up short and saw from a distance Tim Cahill pushing in the equaliser off a melee.
One of his defenders was right behind Viduka and Kawaguchi should have left it to his teammate rather than himself coming out and leave the goal open.
The ’keeper’s blunder not only gifted Australia their first goal in the World Cup finals, it also gave the Socceroos the confidence to throw caution to the wind and pump in two more. Unlike the equaliser, however, their next two goals were superb efforts. Cahill, and then Aloisi, produced excellent finishes as the Japanese defenders ran out of ideas and breath as well.
Seven in the Aussie first XI ply their trade in England, two in Italy and one in The Netherlands. Add the Hiddink factor, and the European influence was pronounced in the team from Down Under. They ran hard, played long balls, but were often caught up by the close-controlled Japanese game.
Viduka, the prolific Middlesbrough striker, showed thrust and some good touches as well. He himself should have taken at least one of the two back-to-back chances that came Australia’s way in the seventh minute.
Then he produced a magical back-heel, which should have been converted by Bresciano.
Japan soaked in the early pressure and seemed to be winning the battle of the midfield, thanks to their Bolton Wanderers star Hidetoshi Nakata who seldom mispassed. Zico’s men also cleverly switched to a short-passing game after about 20 minutes to keep the Aussies under leash.
The Japanese, adept at fast counter-attacks, got their nose in front after 26 minutes. Of course, it was a goal they wouldn’t have got had the referee not missed an infringement against the Aussie custodian. As Nakamura floated one to the goalmouth, Mark Schwarzer left station but his movement was obstructed by Takahara, who was going for the man and not the ball. The ball went in directly into the goal but it should have been disallowed and a free-kick awarded to Australia instead.
The referee erred again in not giving Japan a penalty just after Australia had gone two up.
But that is all a part and parcel of the game. The fact of the matter is, Japan gave themselves a very bright chance of winning their opener and progressing to the knockout round, only to be blown away by the late deluge.
Australia deserved to win simply because they created more openings. But Hiddink’s side got their chances in two phases ' in the opening 20 minutes and the final 15 minutes or so. They will have to pack in some more punch in the middle period if they are to beat stronger teams.