Ever since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams for the 1998 edition, only four teams have managed to qualify from the group stage after losing the opening game (Turkey in 2002, Ghana & Ukraine in 2006, and Spain in 2010). Natal, the City of the Sun, thus will host a must-win contest for both Greece and Japan.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s Blue Samurai were undone by a goalkeeping error and a frantic few minutes in the second half in their first game against Ivory Coast. The four-times Asian Cup Champions boast a very strong offensive unit which includes the skills of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, the architect of a sublime finish against the Elephants. Shinji Okazaki will also be looking to add on to his 38 international goals.
The same can’t really be said for the defense as demonstrated by the soft goals conceded in the first game. Maya Yoshida has never really impressed in the Premier League with Southampton but Zaccheroni will need him to be at his best to lead his defensive line. Yuto Nagotomo also impressed at spells against Ivory Coast and his ability and pace down the flanks may be an important weapon against the defensively susceptible. The Italian coach can also rely on the experience of the likes of Endo and Hasebe in the middle of the park to control the rhythm of the game and harass the Greek midfielders.
As already pointed out, and like so many teams in this World Cup, Greece looked very shoddy in defense against Colombia. Notwithstanding the 3-0 scoreline, some of their build-up play was encouraging. Like Japan, Greece have plenty of experience in the centre of the park, boasting the likes of the Euro 2004 veterans Giorgios Karagounis and Kostos Katsouranis (who replaced the then-suspended. Karagounis in the final against Portugal 10 years ago). Between them they have 247 caps but it’s unlikely that Santos, the Greece coach, will start both together.
Finally, Fulham flop Kostos Mitroglou is being touted as the one likely to lead the offensive line with two of Samaras, Fetfatzidis or Salpingidis flanking him on either side in a 4-3-3 line-up. Ten years ago, resilience, grit and defensive solidity were the platform on which the success of this formation was achieved. Such qualities will be badly needed in the tropical climate of Natal.
In a World Cup already notable for comebacks, expect both teams to fight until the final whistle to achieve a result.