The opening round Group C match between the Ivory Coast and Japan is a very difficult match to predict as both teams are loaded with question marks. Is this going to be the Japanese team that beat Belgium and held the Netherlands to a draw? Or is this the Japanese team that lost to Belarus? Is Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa going to play or will we get Manchester United’s Kagawa?
For Ivory Coast, there are also a lot of questions about who plays and in what form they’ll be. Can a 36 year old Didier Drogba play three matches in nine days? Even if he can, is he an automatic starter over a young, emerging talent like Swansea’s Wilfried Bony? Has Kolo Toure recovered from his bout with malaria? Assuming Yaya Toure is fit (he has yet to even participate in training), will we see the marauding City midifielder or the lethargic uninterested Yaya from the 2013 FA Cup?
One aspect of this match that is not a question mark is that Ivory Coast is a powerful team, filled with strength and talent. If the Ivory Coast attacks are coming through the middle, it’s going to be a long 90 minutes for Japan. Toure and either of the Ivory Coast strikers will be a lot for the Japanese defense to handle. On the defensive side the Ivory Coast’s strength and size will be of the greatest advantage in a match played at a slower tempo. A multitude of Honda and Kagawa counter attacks and the Ivory Coast’s defensive shortcomings will be most evident.
A less than Obvious player to watch is Didier Zokora. As the left sided half of Ivory Coast’s defensive midfield pairing, Zokora will often find himself having to break up potential counter attack 2 on 1s in the form of Japan’s Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Not an easy task for anyone. And given Honda’s free kick abilities Zokora’s tackles are going to have to be clean.
Yasuyuki Konno is another player to watch. Of the probable Japanese back four, Konno is the only one not to play in Europe. Will he be able to cope with the physicality of Drogba or Bony? Konno is listed at 5’10”, 161 pounds. Didier Drogba is listed at 6’2” and around 190 pounds.
As Floyd Mayweather would gladly tell you, going toe to toe with your opponent doesn’t always make the most sense. You have to use what you have to your advantage and try to minimize your opponents strengths. Japan can’t afford to try and out muscle the Ivory Coast, the recipe for success for the Blue Samurai will be constant motion in an effort to pull an already suspect Ivory Coast back line out of position. The interplay between Kagawa and Honda will go a long way toward deciding Japan’s fate offensively.