After an hour of struggling to create chances in Recife, the Ivory Coast took a huge step toward its first appearance in a World Cup knockout road. With second half goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, les Elephants claimed a 2-1 over Asian champion Japan, a result that leaves them even with Colombia at the top of Group C after onet match at the 2014 World Cup.
Along the way, we learned a little more about the two teams that are expect to compete for a place along side the Colombians for a spot in the second round. Here are three takeaways from the Saturday’s final match:
1. The Ivorians responded to Zaccheroni’s dare – Japan has the quality to hold the ball and protect its suspect defense, but Alberto Zaccheroni went the other direction. Japan laid off the Ivorians, chose organization over control, and implicitly dared les Elephants to beat them. Take the ball. Try. We don’t think you can beat us. Japan’s defense was that passive in their approach.
For an hour, it worked, arguably to perfection. The Ivory Coast went 35 minutes before registering a shot on target, and although they built momentum going into intermission, a spell of carelessness at the back in the second half’s opening moments only vindicated Zaccheroni’s approach. As long as Japan stayed organized, the Ivorians weren’t going to beat them.
There was, however, one caveat – two questions that nestled in everybody’s mind when the lineups came out: When would Didier Drogba come on, and what would happen when he did?
In the 62nd minute, Drogba’s inclusion turned the match, but it wasn’t because of anything he did with the ball. Switching from a one-front to a two-striker formation, the Ivorians also adjusted how they played, electing to take more chances from wide rather than pass through Japan’s defense.
At least, that’s how it probably would have played out. Given Japan gave up two goals in 100 seconds, it’s difficult to draw any broad conclusions. though was can put the result in more tactical terms.
For the first time in the game, the Ivory Coast went after Japan’s biggest weakness – their central defense. Be it Wilfried Bony winning an individual battle in the 64th minute or Gervinho sitting unmarked outside the six-yard box in two minutes later, the Japanese defense collapsed quickly once its central defense was forced to step to step up. Whether that was personnel, formation, or approach, who knows, but there was a correction between all three and Saturday’s sudden turn.
Ultimately, it result goes back to Zaccheroni’s dare. Whether he was dubious of the Ivorians’ ability to execute or merely trying to protect his suspect defense, the Japan head coach gave his opponents every opportunity to take this match. Ultimately, they did.
2. In one area, Japan was as expected, unfortunately – And that area leads to a more philosophical question about how to deal with a poor defense. Suffice to say, Japan’s didn’t hold up. The goals the Ivorians scored were litmus tests that decent defenses pass. Unable to defend Serge Aurier’s crosses, Japan’s did not.
So what did Zaccheroni do wrong? From where we’re sitting, it’s presumptuous to even assume we have the information to answer that question, but it’s worth considering what the team could have done had they employed a different approach. Instead of regressing into such a deep, passive posture, what if Japan had put more pressure on the Ivorians’ own questionable defenders? What if the technical, fitness, and speed advantages Japan had were put to use?
Zaccheroni knows more about his team that we do, so it’s hard to make a completely persuasive argument. And had the Samurai Blue gone after the Ivorians, that suspect defense could have been beaten earlier and more often, albeit in a different way.
Given how the game played out, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling Japan let the Ivory Coast definite the match. Zaccheroni’s approach didn’t allow his team to put their best foot forward.
3. Group C looks weak – Greece and Japan offered so little, it’d be premature to get too excited about Colombia or the Ivory Coast, though with les Elephants, it’s worth noting the difficulties they had putting something together over the match’s first hour. Whereas the Cafeteros’ attack lived up to expectations, we’re still in wait-and-see mode with the Ivorians.
Contrast that with Group D, where Costa Rica’s impressive performance has helped create a true quartet. Croatia and Mexico both proved capable behind Brazil in Group A, while Group B saw the world champion Spain fall to a Dutch side that may be unexpectedly strong.
By definition, there has to be a weak group at each World Cup. Through three days, it looks like Group C might be it. Though the Ivorians could build on tonight, find their stride in attack, and become the packet’s second knockout round-quality side, we could also see the holes in Colombia’s defense surface when they’re finally tested on Wednesday.