Two goals in 100 seconds during Saturday’s second half saw the Ivory Coast overcome its slow start to claim what could prove a crucial result. Reversing a deficit Japan handed them after 15 minutes, les Elephants earned a 2-1 win at Recife’s Arena Pernambuco, defeating the team that’s expected to be their main competition for a knockout round spot. In the process, the Ivorians joined Colombia at the top of Group C, taking a huge step toward progressing for the first time at a World Cup.
Keisuke Honda gave the Japanese an early lead after he finished from 12 yards out inside Boubacar Barry’s right post. For the next 58 minutes, a Japanese defense that easily receded into its own half tempted the Ivory Coast to break them own. Just after star striker Didier Drogba was introduced, the Ivorians made them pay, with crosses from Serge Aurier in the 64th and 66th minutes allowing Wilfried Bony and Gervinho to claim full points for their star-studed squad.
Group C continues on Tuesday when the Ivory Coast travel to Brasília to face Colombia, who sit alongside the Ivorians atop the group. Later that day, Japan will face Greece in Natal, with each team seeking their first points of the competition.
At the match’s onset, Japan elected to ceded possession to the Ivorians, daring Les Elephants to break down a defense that only engaged once the ball was in the attacking half. Through most of the first half, that approach resulted in a series of turnovers, with poor execution from the Ivorians rewarding Albert Zaccheroni’s conservative approach. It would be 35 minutes before the Ivory Coast put a shot on goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
In the interim, Japan struck first. After a quick throw-in deep on the left flank the Ivorians off-balance, left back Yuto Nagatomo was able to roll a ball into the area for Keisuke Honda, who had pulled away from the Ivorian defense. Taking a touch to evade Yaya Touré, Honda blasted a shot inside Boubacar Barry’s right post, giving the Ivorian keeper little time to react to the 15th minute opening goal.
As the half progressed, the Ivorians began penetrating Japan’s defense, proving more patient in their buildup as they pushed their opponents deep into the final third. In the 35th minute, that resulted in a long shot from Arthur Boka the Kawashima was forced to parry away – the Ivorians’ first ball on target. Four minutes later, Touré created a chance through the left of the area only to see Gervinho’s shot blocked. Les Elephants would go into halftime scoreless.
The second half initially saw a more aggression from Japan, taking advantage of careless play in the Ivory Coast’s half to generate shots for Makoto Hasebe and Hotaru Yamaguchi. By the hour mark, however, the game resumed its original pose. Though Japan enjoyed spells of position that exposed problems in the Ivorian defense, the team proved willing to regress into two banks of four, showing little urgency to win the ball.
In the 62nd minute, that forced the Ivory Coast to change approach, with Sabri Lamouchi turning to his team’s most famous star. Joining Wilfried Bony up top, Didier Drogba’s inclusion saw the Ivorians leverage the full force of their attacking talents, something that immediately produced a close-range chance in the right of the box.
Two minutes later, the Ivorians had more than a mere chance. They had their equalizer. On a Aurier cross from the right, Bony was able to isolate center back Masato Morishige. Cutting in front of his mark, the Swansea City striker redirected his header past Kawashima, drawing les Elephants even at one.
That scoreline lasted all of two minutes. Off another cross from Aurier, Gervinho headed home from just outside the six yard box, his redirection of a near-post ball bouncing through Kawashima’s hands as the keeper drove to his left post.
Over the match’s final 28 minutes, Japan’s response never came. The Samurai Blue would go the final 70 minutes without a shot on target, with the Ivorians continuing to control possession even after taking the lead.
Though Zaccheroni’s initial plan looked prudent as the Ivorians struggled, his team failed to adjust its opposition was awaken. The Japan we saw at 0-0 and up 1-0 failed to change when they went down 2-1.
The Ivorians, on the other hand, saw their adjustments pay off. Once their famous extra attacker came on, Japan immediately looked light in defense – unable to find the bodies to make all of les Elephants’ stars. Drogba didn’t play a direct part in either goal, but the presence of a second striker helped the Ivory Coast finally get at a suspect Japanese defense.
As a result, a team that reached the final 16 in South Africa lost what could prove their most important match in Brazil. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, is one step closer to its first knockout round.
Ivory Coast: Barry; Aurier, Zokora, Bamba, Boka (Djakpa 75′); Serey (Drogba 62′), Tioté, Touré; Kalou, Bony (Ya Konan 78′), Gervinho
Goals: Bony 64′, Gervinho 66′
Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Morishige, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Hasebe (Endo 54′); Osako (Okubo), Honda, Kagawa (Kakitani 86′); Okazaki
Goals: Honda 15′