Saturday, 21 July 2018

 

Second Chapter - Senegal

Japan 2 - 2 Senegal 

Date:
June 25, 2018
  Location:
Yekatrinberg, Russia

Japan 2

1 1H 1
1 2H 1

2 Senegal

Takashi Inui (34')
Keisuke Honda (77')

Scoring Sadio Mane (11')
Moussa Wague (64')
Takashi Inui  Cautions  

  Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Gen Shoji, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Gaku Shibasaki ; Takashi Inui (Takashi Usami 89'), Shinji Kagawa (Keisuke Honda 70'), Genki Haraguchi; Yuya Osako (Shinji Okazaki 85')
 Khadim N’Diaye; Moussa Wague, Kalidou Koulibaly, Salif Sane, Youssouf Sabaly; Idrissa Gueye; Ismaila Sarr, Alfred N’Diaye, Badou Ndiaye, Sadio Mane; M’Baye Niang


After spending a month desperately trying to talk sense into anyone who would give me even a few patronising minutes of their time, I always knew exactly what to write about in the wake of Japan's 2-1 victory over Colombia. So so it was no real surprise that the account of that contest poured out onto the page the moment I placed my fingers upon the keyboard. Though my expectations for the match against Senegal were also realised in nearly precise detail (well, I was half-hoping for a 2-1 result, but Eiji Kawashima's growing decrepitude between the posts scotched that scenario very early on), for reasons that are not easy to explain, I am struggling to find the right way to begin this second chapter in Japan's 2018 fairy tale. My belief in this edition of the Samurai Blue is as firm as ever, but it seems that somehow the story is evolving more gradually than anticipated.

A quick diversion through online accounts of the contest only made it harder to break through the logjam of writer's block. Perhaps the real problem is that the Midsummer Night's Dream that I -- and a handful of other true believers -- are witnessing does not appear to those still blinded by cynicism and long-ingrained expectations. Every account of the match that I read described a football contest that vaguely RESEMBLED the one that I witnessed on Sunday night, but yet clearly NOT the same event. I suspect that this dream is still so misty and phantasmic in the predawn silence that to see it clearly requires a certain amount of openness and . . . shall we say . . . naivete.

Taking nothing away from Senegal, who were as difficult an opponent as everyone in the press suggested, it nevertheless is strange to hear virtually every comment on the contest in the international press describe this as a contest that Senegal dominated, only to let it slip from their fingers in the final moments due to the heroic and individual efforts of Keisuke Honda. Not only was the contest I watched as finely balanced as one can imagine (apart from one moment of folly from Kawashima), but the contributions Honda made to the equalizer consisted solely of standing unmarked at the right post -- at the level of the six-yard box -- and side-footing home a ball that had been laid on a platter for him thanks to the hard work of no less than five teammates. Again, one is reluctant to take TOO much away from Honda, but the final goal of this contest was one of the most delightful exchanges of the tournament so far, and I have to ask myself -- did anyone else on this planet even see it happen?

Perhaps this is the curse of those who spend to much time watching shadowy magical visions dance in the half-light of their living room, deep into the June night. Sleep deprivation is setting in, and there are moments when one is not even sure that they can trust their own eyes. This year's World Cup is a cruel experience for those who live in the Far East, with the first matches kicking off at 9PM and the final whistle sounding well after the sky has turned a deep blue in premonition of sunrise. No doubt there are many others across the country who have struggled through on an hour or two of slumber, and who also are starting to wonder if their eyes are telling the truth.

But there is a far better explanation for the disparity between the accounts of those who were absolutely CERTAIN that Japan would struggle to score a single goal in this tournament, and depart without a single point, and those who had brighter expectations. One can hardly expect jaded European sportswriters to understand that the results Japan achieved over the past three years were an accurate expression of the competitiveness of a team that no longer takes the pitch when the Samurai Blue emerge from the locker room. The teams that Vahid Halilhodzic sent to the slaughter time and time again, over the past few years, bear only a mild resemblance to the one that Coach Nishino has crafted over the past two months. 

OK, this is something that can be demonstrated objectively, by asking the skeptics to compare the lineup cards. But it may not be THAT hard to see why the folks in Europe still view the Samurai Blue as a bit of a fluke, which they havent the time to investigate in any greater detail. Perhaps if you watch the Japan-Senegal contest with the right coloured classes, it DOES look like the Samurai Blue are struggling for ideas, rather than just narrowly missing connections due to a lack of time together. Perhaps if you watch a highlight-reel version of Honda's tap-in and completely ignore the mazy exchange of a dozen passes that set up the opportunity, you can convince yourself that this was just the late-game heroics of an aging icon who (as even the greatest Honda fans will have to concede) is no longer spry enough to produce quality play over a full 90 minutes. It is a bit harder to understand how observers can ignore the flurry of Japan pressure than very nearly put them ahead, in the 15 to 20 minutes preceding Wague's goal. But then, if you were able to overlook the clearly mistaken call that immediately preceded that strike (Hiroki Sakai) was obviously knocked over from behind), the half-chances Yuya Osako should have put away in the minutes preceding are also quick to be forgotten.

At the end of the day, it may rankle "true believers" when the majority of the football world makes light of your achievements, and tries to explain them away as a fluke, or a sign that Senegal didnt quite do enough to claim victory. The only person who was willing to concede that japan matched Senegal for most of the contest was . . . . . Senegal coach Aliou Cisse.  But in the long run, this may be for the best. The longer that the World Cup's most likely contenders can ignore the Samurai Blue, the more likely it becomes that Japan can keep this dream alive right to the end of this magical mid-summer. Perhaps tomorrow, when these tired eyes have had at least a few hours of sleep, I will analyse the Senegal match in greater detail. For now, the important thing to know is that the dream is very much alive. The only question is whether you are ready to believe.