Fernando Santos called it a game of two halves, the Greece manager arguing that his plan to defeat Japan had been fatally undermined when his captain, Kostas Katsouranis, was sent off just before the interval. As a hypothesis it sounded rather plausible, but the evidence of this game did not bear him out. His team had looked no more likely to score with 10 men than they did with 11. And neither had their opponents.
It was not for want of trying. After losing their respective opening games, Greece and Japan each came into this match knowing that their prospects of progressing from Group C had already taken a serious blow. Only a victory here would allow either side to keep their destiny in their own hands.
Both set out to win the game, albeit in very different ways. For Greece, the plan was to pack the midfield, sit back, and hit aggressively on the counter. Japan, by contrast, aimed to retain possession and outmanoeuvre their opponents. Either approach could have worked in theory. But in practice, each relied on having forwards who understood what to do in the final third.
The pattern of the game was set early on. Japan moved the ball around diligently but without any great sense of urgency – a squadron of cautious drivers following Alberto Zaccheroni’s tactical satnav. But the coach’s plan to attack Greece down the flanks was not working. Players kept running into dead ends. Even Zaccheroni himself would concede after the game that his team “needed another idea” for how to break down their opponents.
Greece would attack with great gusto on the rare occasions when they had the ball, but those were too few and far between. Their enthusiasm could also spill over. A team seeing so little possession could ill afford to throw it away on long-range pot-shots as they sometimes did here.
Katsouranis’s dismissal in the 38th minute was needless. Already on a yellow card, he dived into a challenge on Makoto Hasebe in the middle of the park and arrived late enough to warrant his second caution. He left berating the referee, but truthfully had no one but himself to blame.
His team had already lost one member of their starting XI by that stage, Kostas Mitroglou requesting to come off after an awkward aerial collision with Hasebe. Fulham’s oft-injured striker had been drafted into the team to give Greece more purpose up front after their limp showing against Colombia, but he lasted just 35 minutes before being substituted by the man he replaced in the line-up, Theofanis Gekas.
Katsouranis’s dismissal necessitated another change as Giorgos Karagounis relieved Giannis Fetfatzidis to restore some balance in the middle of the park. But despite these changes, Greece actually ended the half the stronger, Vasilis Torosidis drawing a sharp save from Eiji Kawashima with his shot from the edge of the box, before heading another opportunity over from close range.
Japan’s best chances of the first-half had arrived much earlier, Yuya Osako going close twice in three minutes. After drawing a save from Orestis Karnezis down to the goalkeeper’s right, he then curled a more venomous effort wide of the post on the far side. Soon afterwards, Keisuke Honda whipped a free-kick towards the top right corner of the goal, only to be denied once more by Karnezis.
Japan would see plenty more possession to start the second-half, but achieved little with it. It was telling that the 57th-minute introduction of Shinji Kagawa – who had been left out of the starting XI after a flat performance during his team’s 2-1 defeat to Ivory Coast – should produce one of the largest cheers of the night from the sizeable Japanese contingent in Natal.
No sooner had he entered the field, however, than Greece summoned their best chance of the game, Gekas powering a header towards the bottom left corner of the net from near the penalty spot. Only a fine reflex stop from Kawashima kept the scores level.
Japan would waste an even better opportunity moments later. In the 68th minute Atsuto Uchida ran onto a long ball into the box and swiftly played it square along the edge of the six-yard area. Yoshito Okubo arrived on the far side with an open goal at his mercy, but screwed his shot high and wide.
There were further chances at both ends. Uchida thrashed wide of the post from five yards for Japan, and Okubo stung Karnezis’s palms from distance. Greece launched another counter, with Jose Holebas testing Kawashima. But who knows how long it would have taken these two misfiring sides to produce a goal? Ninety minutes had proved quite insufficient.
Asked what his team would need to do differently in its final game against Ivory Coast, Santos replied with the obvious. “We have to win,” he said. “A draw is no good. Ivory Coast has three points, we only have one. The only solution is to win. We cannot go there and thing ‘well, maybe, what will happen’. No, we have to go there and win.”
Even that would not necessarily be enough, if Japan were also to beat Colombia – whose place in the last-16 was secured by this result. But Santos cannot afford to think beyond his own team right now. In eight World Cup finals appearances, split across three tournaments, Greece have scored only two goals. It is reasonable to say, at this stage, that their deficiencies go beyond a simple sending off.