CUIABA, Brazil (AP) – Alberto Zaccheroni is facing arguably the most important team selection of his four-year tenure in Japan, and once again it revolves around whether to start star playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
With just one point from its first two Group C matches, Japan must beat already-qualified Colombia on Tuesday and hope for a slip-up by second-place Ivory Coast in the group’s other game to reach the knockout stage for the third time in four World Cups.
The odds are stacked against the Asian champions, and even upholding their end of the equation may be beyond them given Japan’s form so far in Brazil and the attacking verve shown by Colombia in its two wins.
Japan needs big performances from its star players in Cuiaba – but one of them might not even be on the pitch.
Kagawa, coming off a disappointing season at club level for Manchester United, was dropped for the 0-0 draw against Greece on Thursday after making little impact in the opening 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast.
It’s a gamble that has been scrutinized endlessly in Japan, where Kagawa holds celebrity status, and it remains to be seen if Zaccheroni recalls him for the must-win Colombia match.
“That is something the coach decides and has nothing to do with being Japan’s number 10,” Kagawa said. “I respect the coach. I felt in the first match that I wasn’t performing. In both matches I haven’t been able to get the results I wanted.
“But I’m going to try to turn that around in the next match.”
It’s a selection poser that could define Zaccheroni’s tenure that may end after the World Cup, particularly if Japan fails to advance from the group. He was the big European name that Japan’s football hierarchy targeted to take the national team to the next level, but it isn’t working out that way.
“What happens after the World Cup is the last thing on my mind,” Zaccheroni said at the start of the tournament. “The only thing that’s decided is that I’ll go on vacation in my home town in Italy.
“When you have the opportunity to take part in the World Cup it isn’t easy to make plans for the future.”
The future looks much rosier for Colombia.
Even without star striker Radamel Falcao, the Colombians are enjoying their return to football’s biggest stage after a 16-year absence.
James Rodriguez, a 22-year-old playmaker, is the focal point of a young team and he has been one of the stand-out players in Brazil after scoring two goals and setting up a slew of chances with his pinpoint passing.
“He is going to be one of the best players in the World Cup,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. “He has always shown that potential since he won a place in the national squad.
“I think that he is reaching the highest levels that a player with his characteristics can. He is maturing, he takes commitment seriously, and he has vision.”
Save for keeping up the winning feeling, there is no obvious benefit of coming top of the group ahead of the last 16 – it is still unclear who will be runner-up in Group D out of Italy, Uruguay and current leader Costa Rica.
Pekerman, therefore, has the option of resting some of his key players so they don’t have to play three games in 10 days ahead of the knockout stage. Highly-rated midfielder Juan Quintero may get a start after his goal-scoring appearance off the bench in the 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.
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