Alberto Zaccheroni and the boys have been training vigorously since arriving at their pre-World Cup camp in Tampa, Florida, at the end of last week. In the 24 hours leading up to Japan's friendly against Costa Rica, Zac was at pains to downplay expectations, noting several times that his main focus for the week was to ensure that all of his players were in peak physical condition when the real show kicks off, in just under two weeks.
Though it has been difficult to get straight answers on the physical condition of any specific individuals, it appears that both Yuto Nagatomo and Gotoku Sakai are shaking off minor leg injuries, while Makoto Hasebe is still not fully recovered from the knee surgery he underwent earlier in the year. Sakai and Hasebe watched the contest from the stands, while Nagatomo made only a brief appearance in the final 20 minutes.
Suspicions about the coach's desire to rest ailing players were supported by the rather unusual starting lineup that took the pitch at Tampa Stadium. With both Nagatomo and Sakai at less than 100 percent, Yasuyuki Konno made a rare appearance on the left side of defense -- a choice that would come back to haunt Zaccheroni later in the first half.
In deep midfield the first-time pairing of Toshihiro Aoyama and Hotaru Yamaguchi got the call. Masato Morishige and Maya Yoshida joined Konno and Atsuto Uchida in the back line.
Yoshito Okubo took up the right attacking slot, ahead of Shinji Okazaki, while Yuya Osako got the call in the lone striker position. Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa comprised the most conventional part of the lineup, along with Eiji Kawashima in goal.
Though this lineup was significantly below full strength, at least Zaccheroni showed enough respect for the Ticos' speedy attacking players to plug some of the gaps in his defensive unit.
Not surprisingly, Costa Rica fans greatly outnumbered Nippon Ultras in Southern Florida, though the display of banners along the sidelines greatly favoured Japan.
Costa Rica clearly did their homework, as their early attacking efforts all went down the right sideline, targeting Konno. Though Japan tried to forestall this problem by having Konno press high up the pitch when Japan had the ball, his lack of foot speed was visible even in the early stages.
The first dangerous shot went to the Ticos, Kawashima palming the low drive around the right post. However the opening 15 minutes featured several good chances for Japan, with both Okubo and Osako sending shots over the crossbar.
As the first half wore on, Japan's sharp passing began to create more and more chances. Osako hit the base of the post with a shot that was flagged offside, albeit incorrectly, and Okubo made a slanting run through the middle only to send his shot a bit too close to the keeper, who made a full-length diving save.
Honda then beat the keeper with a stutter-step in the box but hesitated with his shot and allowed the defense to clear. Despite the lack of finishing, Japan's penetration play was truly beautiful to behold. Even the Costa Rican fans roared in appreciation of the sleek one-touch exchanges.
But as many Samurai Blue fans may have anticipated at the outset, the first chance Costa Rica got to exploit Konno on the left flank resulted in a goal for the Ticos. In the 31st minute Junior Diaz made a surging run down the opposite flank, and Bryan Ruiz advanced on the right (Japan's left) wing to match his penetration. Everyone in the stadium could see the potential for the long cross to Ruiz, but Konno either couldn't match his pace, or fell asleep on the play. Ruiz swooped in to meet Diaz's cross with the simplest of unchallenged headers, and it was 1-0 to Costa Rica.
There were a few more close calls as the first half wore down, since the Ticos now saw the potential to overrun the Japan left flank. But fortunately some solid play by Morishige and Yoshida kept the damage to a minimum.
At half time Aoyama was replaced by Yasuhito Endo, whose lack of pace is almost as bad as that of Konno, but who at least makes up for it with his creative talent on offense. Shinji Okazaki also came on in place of Okubo after the intermission.
Okazaki's first act was to create a brilliant chance for Honda and Kagawa, but the creative midfield duo again allowed the Ticos defenders to clear the ball away before getting off a shot. Endo, on the other hand, was largely invisible for 15 minutes, but then suddenly popped up to take advantage of a nice counterattacking break by Osako and Honda.
Arriving late to the counterattacking surge, Endo strolled through the middle and finished off the flowing play with a calm sidefooter of Honda's centering pass. In this role -- as a late offensive sub -- I believe that Endo can still make a valuable contribution. However neither he nor Konno has the defensive skills and stamina to deserve a spot in the starting lineup.
Following the goal. Konno was finally withdrawn and Yuto Nagatomo took his accustomed spot on the left wing. Uchida retired to the bench a few minutes later, replaced by Hiroki Sakai, and Yoichiro Kakitani replaced Osako as Japan's last substitution. Just after Kakitani entered the contest he provided a one-two pass to Shinji Kagawa as the midfielder dashed through the middle and gave Japan the lead for the first time, ten minutes before the final whistle.
As the clock ticked into injury time Okazaki made an impressive run into the box and fought off the challenge of his defender, knocking the ball down for Kakitani to stroke into the back of the net.
While the final score was encouraging, and the play of all but a few Samurai Blue members solid albeit not spectacular, the huge gaps that appeared in defense all through the first half were a real source of concern.
Zaccheroni closed out the contest with an interview in which he discussed the condition of his players, and his concern with ensuring that all are in peak condition for the start of the real action, against Cote d'Ivoire.
Those comments allow me to remain hopeful that he will limit the use of his aging players to spot duty, as was the case for Endo in this contest. So long as he continues to start aging players like Endo and Konno, however, it is hard to avoid a sense of foreboding.