Group C is admittedly wide open, and both Ivory Coast and Japan know that it presents them with the opportunity to at least make the second round with a view to going further.
Cameroon have the best record of sides from Africa when they made the quarter finals at Italia ’90, while apart from South Korea making the semi-finals when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002, the best performance by an Asian side came in 1966 when North Korea reached the quarter-finals before being put out by a Eusebio-led Portugal.
Neither side will be expecting to make the final, but will at least want to take the opportunity of a decent group and push towards the quarters. Ivory Coast have been perennial underachievers for some years, with their 'Golden Generation' failing to get out of the group stage in both 2006 and 2010.
Japan haven’t fared much better, finding themselves unable to get beyond the second round. The aim for both in this favourable group has to be qualifying, and so they will need a good start to do that.
The two teams work to their respective strengths, which are very different. Japan enjoy keeping the ball, moving at pace and moving through the centre to get their attacking options in possesion as much as possible, while Ivory Coast are physically imposing, with the potential for explosive wide play and powerful running from driving forces like Yaya Toure.
As a result, Japan will probably enjoy a lot of the ball, but Ivory Coast will fancy their chances of being able to outmuscle their smaller, slighter opponents and hit them with enough pace on the break to cause mistakes and work chances.
A 4-3-3 is expected from Sabri Lamouchi, who will expect his wide players to exploit the space left by Japan’s narrow style and stretch them, allowing Dider Drogba more freedom as a penalty box predator and giving Toure more space, although the Manchester City man hardly needs more than a yard.
Japan will expect their sitting midfielders and defence to maintain possession and control, before utilising an interchangeable front four to work their way around the Ivorian defence and create the opportunities.
Alberto Zaccheroni will probably have his side retain the ball early on and frustrate the opposition, with swift breaks to open up the defence and create goalscoring chances.
They will probably have to brave the assault of the Ivory Coast, who will be expansive, will stretch the play and look to create opportunities of their own. Both side’s talents lie in their front four, and so both will try to get them on the ball as much as possible.
It’s impossible to deny the impact Toure has for both club and country. A defensive anchor turned box-to-box dynamo, the midfielder will be crucial to turning attack into defence and both creating and scoring goals for the Elephants.
Also key is the rejuvenated Gervinho, whose form with Roma has been closer to the player Arsenal signed. He offers the pace and skill that makes him ideal for playing their explosive style and is well supported by Toulouse right-back Serge Aurier, who offers could overlapping runs and brings freshness to an otherwise ageing defence.
For Japan, their attacking quarter boasts a lot of potential and, though perhaps not consisting of all household names, are gifted and ideal to execute fast, one-touch football and score a goal before the opposition knows what’s happened.
Key to that is AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda, who is the fulcrum at the heart of the team. All play is channelled through him and he acts as the perfect player to bring others into the game.
Shinji Kagawa hasn’t played an awful lot this season with Manchester United, but is a key component of Japan’s approach and can comfortably be deployed out wide as the rotational nature of the attacking four mean he gets into the centre often. His vision and skill make him both a dangerous architect and finisher.
Japan will take early control of the ball and keep possession, frustrating Ivory Coast and forcing them to chase. As a result, space will open up in behind and Japan’s star players will be able to work openings as their pace and skill gets the better of a slower, older defence.
The key will be whether they can finish their chances without a real natural forward. Shinji Okazaki is considered a striker and is the joint-third top scorer in Japan’s history, but the World Cup is different prospect altogether and they may struggle.
Ivory Coast will look to use their physical advantage and bully Japan off the ball, before breaking at pace and taking advantage of Japan’s narrow game by finding wide options like Gervinho and Salomon Kalou. Unlike Japan, in Drogba the Elephants have a natural finisher who, though past his best, is still a capable goalscorer and the key will be giving him the ball in the box as often as possible.
Neither side is particularly accomplished at the back and, in spite of contrasting styles, both will inevitably seek out their front four to do the damage.
With that in mind, an attacking game is probable and both sides will be keen to get off to a good start. Japan’s added pace and better technical ability may just make them that little bit more clinical, as Ivory Coast continue to rely on a talented generation of players whose best days are behind them.
Prediction: Ivory Coast 1-3 Japan
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