Asian teams in World Cup look to improve their fortunes
If this were a league season, two points from the first five games would start to produce headlines in the media and grumbling among the fans. A couple of subsequent wins would mean mid-table, where the situation would look very different, but another defeat or two and then worries could easily turn to panic and, in a more high-pressured league, coaches would be in serious danger.
The collective Asian points haul is hardly a cause for celebration. Nobody expected a maximum haul across the board, but at less than half a point a game, a slow start is in danger of becoming something more serious.
Ironically, Australia, a country on the fringes of the Asian Football Confederation, are the ones who have shown the way despite losing both of their games. The defeats against Chile and the Netherlands were unfortunate. Apart from the first 20 minutes against the South Americans and a few second-half minutes versus the Dutch, the Socceroos have more than matched teams that were expected to hand out football lessons. Ange Postecoglou's men have been committed and aggressive and deserve points on the board. They have been Australian and played the way Australia, at their best, play -- with aggression, commitment and no small amount of skill.
It's time for others to follow that lead, in attitude if not in results. Japan have been the biggest disappointment simply because after a good start, they were passive, pushed back and, in the words of coach Alberto Zaccheroni, "lacked intensity." This wasn't the Japan that Asia has come to know and respect. It was a lightweight version more "Samurai who?" than Samurai Blue for fans watching an unrecognizable performance as a one-goal lead was thrown away against Ivory Coast.
It is to be hoped, believed even, that it is just one game, one bad day at the office. Teams lose at the World Cup; Spain famously lost their opener four years ago, but Japan not only have to defeat Greece, they have to find their mojo and play the Japan way. It is frustrating that after four years of a preparation period that was as good as any of the teams that started out on the road to Brazil, the team appeared to forget everything it knew when it mattered most.
"It's not a shock that we lost," Keisuke Honda told reporters. "The thing that shocks me is that we lost because we couldn't play to our strengths. Possession is our strength and we need to keep hold of the ball and not give it away too easily. Putting pressure on our opponents straightaway after losing the ball is our philosophy."
There was little of that. This Japan team has to show that it is made of stronger stuff than 2006, when a come-from-behind defeat against Australia in the opener knocked the stuffing out of it. This feels different, it has to be different and even if Japan can't find that pass-and-move groove, then they have to find something, any way of getting past the 2004 Euro champs.
Iran and South Korea are happier. Both were satisfied with their opening-round results, draws against Nigeria and Russia respectively, and if there was a lack of aggression, especially from Iran, it has to be placed in context. After losing all past opening games at the World Cup, Iran didn't want to make it four out of four. Ending that sequence was more important than continuing the one in Brazil of drawless games full of thrills, spills and goals. For Carlos Queiroz, the plan was always about being in the running going into the final game and beating Bosnia-Herzegovina to go into the second round, and that scenario is very much on. There may be a gnawing doubt that Nigeria could be the easiest test in the group and presented the best chance of three points. While the defence was rock solid and as well-organized as you would expect a Carlos Queiroz team to be, a little more movement in midfield and more support for Reza Ghoochannejhad up front, and one point could have been three.
It may be too much to expect Iran to be a little more aggressive against Argentina when a point really would be celebrated, but if the opportunity is there, the shock could be on. If Australia can come close to beating Holland, Asia's No. 1 team, according to FIFA at least, can get something against the Albiceleste.
South Korea were a little different again. When the draw was made in December, it was felt that Russia represented a tough but winnable opener. So poor were subsequent results -- five of the next seven were lost with all five scoreless from the Asians -- that expectations fell. They reached a nadir last week as the defence fell apart in a frightening 4-0 loss against Ghana in Miami.
Playing a turgid Russia, imitating England 2010, under Fabio Capello in the opening game was never going to be a festival of football, but Korea needed a solid performance and got one. It wasn't vintage, but it was a big step in the right direction after what had gone on before. Still, the Taeguk Warriors, playing their eighth consecutive World Cup, should not be too pleased with a draw and need a win against Algeria. Korea can do better. Asia can do better. Australia came very close to shocking the world by playing the Australian way with aggression and confidence. Something similar is needed from the rest if Asia's results are to improve, and they have to improve.