Three thoughts on Ivory Coast's 2-1 win over Japan on Saturday in Recife.
1. Drogba and Aurier changed the game
Eight years ago, almost to the day, Japan were cruising to an opening game win over Australia when Tim Cahill came off the bench and proceeded to score twice as the Socceroos produced an amazing turnaround to take the game 3-1 and basically end Japan's World Cup.
This time, everyone knew who this second half substitute was. With Didier Drogba on the pitch, the men in orange seemed to grow in stature and confidence, while those in blue did the opposite. The ex-Chelsea man didn't do an awful lot -- he just was Drogba. Japan seemed so terrified of the striker that they seemed to forget there were other players on the pitch.
In the case of Serge Aurier, this was perhaps understandable. The reported Arsenal target had been anonymous in the first half and had never previously recorded an assist for his national team. Here, he managed two in two minutes. Getting the ball too easily on the right side, the Toulouse man curled in two of the most perfect crosses you could ever hope to see. The first was headed home marvelously by Wilfried Bony while, for the second, Gervinho found more space in the box and then got the second, though goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima really should have kept it out.
It certainly wasn't a vintage Ivory Coast performance, but they were rewarded for their aggression and persistence. The Elephants stepped it up a gear with Drogba on the pitch, and an increasingly flat-looking Japan retreated deeper and deeper. In the end, the scoreline could have been more emphatic.
2. Honda comes good for a while; Kagawa does not
Shinji Kagawa might get more of the headlines with Manchester United, but Keisuke Honda has been the driving force for Japan ever since the 2010 World Cup, in which his goals helped the Samurai Blue to the second round. This year, however, the blond bombshell has not been at his best, whether it be for AC Milan or his country. Preparation games saw the star increasingly desperate to show what he could do, in contrast to his comments that he knew he would come good when it mattered.
It turns out he was right and wrong. He took just 16 minutes to show what he is capable of, and even fans flagging at the end of a marathon day of football were standing up to applaud. His first touch, with his right foot at the corner of the area, left Yaya Toure -- yes, Yaya Toure -- floundering. His second was a scorching shot with his left that was in the top corner of the African goal before Boubacar Barry had a chance to move.
Ten minutes before the break, Honda was at it again, dribbling through the Ivory Coast defence before unleashing a shot that was deflected over. It was just unfortunate that he faded in a very disappointing second half for Japan, when his use of the ball was a little less impressive.
Perhaps things could have been different if Kagawa had shouldered his share of the creative burden. The Manchester United man failed to put his club form behind him and was giving the ball away from early on in the proceedings. Out of sorts and in a funk, Kagawa has to improve if Japan are going to get out of this group.
3. Ivory Coast not through yet; Japan far from out.
The Africans have taken a huge step toward their first ever appearance in the knockout stage of the World Cup, but there is still plenty to do. Colombia come next, with both teams aware that a win will almost certainly take them through to the second stage.
The South Americans will provide a tougher test and are full of confidence after defeating Greece 3-0. Ivory Coast need a better and bigger performance from Yaya Toure, who looked a little sluggish in Recife.
Japan will be devastated at losing in such a fashion, especially after taking the lead, but unlike in 2006, they have to still believe they can bounce back -- and bounce back they can. Next comes a perfect opportunity to pick themselves (and three points) up against Greece in a game that both sides now have to win. The Europeans lost their opener in emphatic style and will have to open up more than they would like. In theory at least, this should give the Samurai Blue the opportunities they need to get behind the Greek lines.
That will require a more aggressive and consistent performance, and there can be no more slip-ups. The likes of Kagawa, as well as the disappointing Shinji Okazaki, need to contribute more going forward, the midfield has to play much higher than it managed in Recife and the defence has to deal much better with balls into the area. Simple.