Preview: Japan v Croatia

Two first up losers battle it out in a do or die match in Nuremberg on Sunday when Japan take on Group F rivals Croatia.

    Japan coach Zico and star midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata

    Japan and Croatia made their World Cup Finals debuts together at France ’98, both played at Japan/Korea 2002 (albeit, Japan as hosts), and hence both make their third consecutive World Cup Finals appearances at Germany 2006.

    Further to this, the two teams were drawn together in Group H at the '98 World Cup, where Croatia defeated the Blues 1-0 in Nantes with the European debutants going on to finish third overall in the tournament – a magnificent achievement for the redeveloping Balkan republic. 

    Japan meanwhile exited their first tournament dishonourably, scoring just one late goal in their final match against Jamaica and after only 270 minutes in the limelight, they were back at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for the final boarding call for flight JL416 to Tokyo wondering what went wrong.

    Eight years later the two teams meet on the world stage once again, and this time their respective tournaments are on the line with both teams having to deal with agonising defeats in their opening matches.

    Japan’s loss to Australia is possibly the most heartbreaking defeat of the Cup so far with the Asian Champions leading 1-0 until the 84th minute only for the Socceroos to produce a stunning fight back, scoring three goals in eight minutes to snatch victory.

    It is a result that has been hard to deal with for both the Japanese squad and their fans at home with cynics coming straight out asking for the sacking of Brazilian coach Zico, and for the team to return home without playing any further.

    The Blues will again look to first up goal scorer Shunsuke Nakamura for inspiration, while forwards Atsushi Yanagisawa and Naohiro Takahara both looked dangerous at times against Australia.

    Studs up: Croatian defender Robert
    Kovac and coach Zlatko Kranjcar

    For the Croatians, their first up loss against Brazil was perhaps expected by many, but the manner in which the Europeans took the game to the South Americans will give coach Zlatko Kranjcar great heart going into Sunday’s match.

    The team with the checkerboard print were perhaps the most impressive team to lose in the first round of group matches, only going down to a Kaka wonder-strike late in the first half.

    Influential captain Niko Kovac should play against Japan after leaving the field with a rib injury in the 40th minute against the World Champions after a heavy collision with defensive midfielder Ze Roberto.

    "Niko Kovac had treatment and feels much better, although he is still in pain. I'm optimistic he will play," team doctor Zoran Bahtijarevic told the press.

    This should be a fantastic match in which both sides will be looking for victory, with defeat for either team likely to mean an early exit from the tournament and the knives coming out back home.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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