Japan and their coach Zico rejoiced after a 76th minute strike from supersub Masashi Oguro earned them their first points in the tournament and dispatched the European Champions in the process.
The Japanese elation was an exact mirror to the gloom surrounding the now rather mediocre looking Greeks, who seem unworthy to be considered champions of Europe with abject performances like today’s.
It seemed as if Otto Rehagel or ‘Rehakles’ as he is called, had taken Zico’s admission that his side struggle with high balls all too seriously as the Greeks played ‘hit and hope’ all evening, pumping aerial ball after aerial ball to almost no discernible effect. That they had no back-up when their system clearly was in need of changing sits curiously at odds with the tactical nous of Rehagel that was widely admired as the brains behind Greece’s remarkable poaching of the Henri Delaunay trophy in Lisbon last summer.
In contrast Japan were a good advert for football. They used the width of the field to great effect and passed fluently and elgantly along the deck with Hidetoshi Nakata’s elegant approach play once more a delight to behold. Like Greece, Japan lack a group of talented individuals but the sum of their parts has produced an elegant teamplay that fuses tactical awareness and the importance of keeping one’s shape with skilful close control and brisk one-touch passing.
Greece had tried to take advantage of Japan’s traditional shortcoming, the lack of physical presence, in the opening exchanges but soon the Asian champions’ slick counter-attacking game was bypassing the Europeans’ brawn.
Japanese muscles were first flexed after eight minutes when Keiji Tamada fired wide with Shunsuke Nakamura unmarked and then five minutes later when Mitsuo Ogasawara almost lobbed Antonios Nikopolidis in the Greek goal.
After nineteen minutes a flowing counter attack ended with wing-back Akira Kaji hitting the side-netting but in between, Ajax hitman Angelos Charisteas headed over from a Giorgios Karagounis corner at the other end and Bolton’s Greek playmaker forced a save from Japan goalie Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi from a set piece.
The Bitcoin Dice Japanese technical and tactical superiority soon translated however into a tsunami of first-half chances as Greece looked increasingly vulnerable to the counter-attack and their own incursions had a kamikaze feel to them.
After twenty-two minutes Nakata released Tamada only for him to chip narrowly over and a minute later another break saw Japan spurn another chance when Atsushi Yanagisawa blazed over. The same offender made amends fifteen minutes later with an exciting slalom run through the Greek defence that concluded with Takashi Fukunishi rifling wide having run on to the loose ball.
On thirty-seven minutes it was the turn of Kaji to storm upfield and unleash a shot at Nikopolidis but the blue shirts’ best chance was a golden one spurned by Tamada six minutes before the break. When Nakata picked him out thirty-five yards from goal and unmarked he raced forward unchallenged but snatched at his shot which he pulled clear of goal. Three minutes later Tamada would miss again with an attempted lob.
Greece at last won a little respite before the interval as Charisteas had an effort gathered by Kawaguchi and Zisis Vryzas headed wide but they went into half time clearly outplayed, out-thought and showing no obvious ideas or cohesion.
With an hour gone Rehagel had gambled by putting three men upfront but Greece still seemed toothless up front and obsessed with aiming hopeful balls into the box to ruffle the Japanese.
Vassilios Tsiartas had curled a free-kick into Kawaguchi’s hands before Zico made a substition after sixty-five minutes that would turn the match in his favour.
Tamada had scurried around like a terrier and wriggled like an eel all afternoon but had failed to catch his prey so Zico gambled in replacing him with Masashi Oguro.
Takashi Fukunishi and Alex Dos Santos both saw chances go astray before the long-deserved breakthrough arrived in the seventy-sixth minute.
A move began with Yasuhito Endo on the right and he fed Nakamura whose slide-rule pass released Oguro who stuck the ball wide of Nikopolidis and into the net.
Japanese celebrations could well have been punctured only seconds later when a suicidally underhit back pass from Makoto Tanaka let Dimitrios Papadopoulos and Charisteas in but the two collided in their eagerness to shoot and the chance went begging as Kawaguchi smothered the ball.
Fukunishi almost made it two with a powerful header in the eighty-first minute before with six minutes left on the clock Charisteas had Greece’s final hurrah with run from the halfway line that ended with his shot from inside the box being saved.
Koji Nakata, on for man of the match Nakamura, saw his effort cleared off the line in the dying seconds but the better team had got their just rewards.