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Jun 13, 2014

Ivory Coast vs. Japan: 50-50 Challenge

Ivory CoastIvory Coast
JapanJapan
2
1
FT
Match 6
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Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan make up an intriguing Group C. Find out who our panel think will advance.

Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Ivory Coast take on Japan in the Group C, Sam Crocker (Ivory Coast) and Ken Matsushima (Japan) are your guides.

What's at stake?

Sam Crocker: While by no means a historically meaningful fixture, the relative importance that it has in the context of the group is massive. Despite Ivory Coast losing to Japan 2-0 in a friendly in 2010, a good start is vital in what is arguably one of the most difficult-to-call groups. A win for either side will allow them to potentially gain some momentum to finish behind group favourites Colombia and to progress.

Ken MatsushimaAre you kidding? Everything is at stake in this match, which is likely to be the key to the tournament for both teams. Japan and Ivory Coast will both fancy their chances to take points off Greece and perhaps even Colombia. But without a strong start to the tournament and three points from this game, both will face an uphill battle.

It is all or nothing for Japan. All of Zaccheroni's preparations and strategic decisions over the past month have been focused on getting the team ready for Ivory Coast, based on the idea that if the Samurai Blue can win this one, the rest of the tournament will proceed smoothly. I suspect that Ivory Coast will approach it with the same intentions. This makes it quite likely the match that will be the best in the group -- perhaps even one of the best in the entire tournament.

X factor

SC: With both Japan full-backs more competent at attacking than they are defending, I can see Gervinho enjoying himself in this match. Looking extremely dangerous in the friendly against El Salvador, the former Arsenal man is exuding confidence at the moment, and this is a good game to get him started. Whether it is exploiting the space behind or taking on Atsuto Uchida or Yuto Nagatomo (depending on which side he plays), Gervinho could well come out with an assist and/or a goal in this game.

KM: Players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Nagatomo are well-known danger men whom Les Elephants will have scouted thoroughly. They are sure to play key roles, but to achieve victory they need to overcome whatever defensive plans Sabri Lamouchi has prepared.

On the other hand, the X Factor will be the defensive midfielders. Naturally, keeping a blanket over Yaya Toure will be critical if Japan want to have a chance. If veterans Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe get the call, I think Japan will eventually be overrun in midfield. On the other hand, if Hotaru Yamaguchi starts alongside Hasebe, the Samurai Blue defence will be much more resilient. If Hasebe is unable to start due to lingering fitness issues, the contest could get ugly for the Samurai Blue very fast.

Shinji Kagawa has the ability to unlock Ivory Coast's defence.

Fear factor

SC: The Ivory Coast defence will have to keep their hands on Okazaki if they want to stay in this game. With some outrageous form as part of an impressive Mainz team this season, his stationing on the left of a front three will not make him any less dangerous; his mobility and preference for moving into the centre could confuse a sketchy Ivory Coast defence.

Being surrounded by creativity, it is unlikely he will lack the opportunity to harm them, as well as the possibility of dragging the centre-backs out of position to deal with him, thus leaving an open space for Kagawa or Honda to exploit.

KM: Naturally, people are familiar with the big names like Gervinho, Didier Drogba and the two Toures, Kolo and Yaya.

The Ivorian player who is most feared -- perhaps more than Toure or Drogba -- is Wilfried Bony. He played for two seasons with Japan's Mike Havenaar at Vitesse, where his speed, strength on the dribble and finishing skills made a very strong impression. His potential to open up Japan's defensive channels may represent the biggest threat Ivory Coast could offer.

Key battle

SC: Cheick Tiote v Honda. The two Ivorian defensive midfielders will have a job on their hands to deal with Honda, who is likely to play in the hole behind the striker. Likely to be allocated to Cheick Tiote, Lamouchi could ask the Newcastle man to mark the creative midfielder, which will suffocate Japan's option through the middle.

KM: Yaya Toure v Yamaguchi/Endo will be an important one for both teams. However, one of the main strengths Japan will enjoy is likely to involve the Ivorian wide defenders. Serge Aurier and Arthur Boka are not top-level defenders, and they certainly do not have much experience facing wing-backs who play with as much initiative as Nagatomo and Uchida.

Having said that, Aurier can get forward and poses a scoring threat when he does. I expect Nagatomo and Uchida to be given complete freedom to advance in this contest, since their threat on attack more than offsets the defensive risks.

Prediction

SC: I think 2-2 -- I can't see either side coming out on top in this one. Both have strong attacks and weak defences, so I think a fairly high-scoring affair will end level.

KM: I think four goals may be the minimum total in the match, with 3-1 the most likely score line. Don't ask me which number pertains to which team! In this matchup anything can happen -- and probably will.

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