The striker's early goal proved to be decisive, as Argentina could not find the key to break a determined Japanese defensive effort...
'El Checho's' side toiled against a team which combined unlimited enthusiasm, fitness and self-sacrifice with no little talent, and with a decision expected next month on who will take over the coaching job permanently it was an unwelcome setback for the trainer.
Argentina started the game on the front foot, stroking the ball around with ease and with Lionel Messi looking a constant threat to the Japanese defence. The number 10 almost opened the scoring after six minutes with an powerful run through the middle of the park, chipping just over after a neat one-two with Diego Milito.
Japan were not fazed however, playing their habitual 100mph pressing game and nearly scoring themselves through Takayuki Morimoto early on; a good reaction save from Sergio Romero denying the striker.
A pattern emerged in the game from that moment forward. Argentina dominated possession and looked to break through, but almost every attempt to break into the box or release a shot was met by a tireless Samurai boot or body; and what the Japan defence could not stop within the rules of the game they were more than happy to take down and concede a foul. Their commitment to running and the counter attack paid off after 18 minutes, when Shinji Okazaki fired the home team into the lead.
Sergio Romero could not hold on to a stinging long shot, and while the ‘Albiceleste’ watched immobile three Japanese players were hurtling towards the rebound. Okazaki arrived first and slotted the loose ball home to send the capacity crowd wild.
For the rest of the half Argentina showed little sign of an equaliser as their spaces in the final third became non-existent. Messi again went closest from a dead ball; but a beautifully struck free-kick was well saved by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. Andres D’Alessandro in particular struggled to adapt from the more languid pace of the Brazilian league to the constant attentions of the opposition, and his frustrations showed as he was booked for a clumsy tackle.
The second half started in much the same vein, and indeed it was Japan who had the better chances after the restart. Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda both went close early on as the Argentine back four looked a pale reflection of their attentive opposite numbers. All the Albiceleste danger was emanating from their talisman Messi, and ‘La Pulga’ scared on the hour with a long range struck that whistled just over the bar.
The entry of Javier Pastore for D’Alessandro seemed to wake Sergio Batista’s charges and inject some urgency into the set up, and ‘El Flaco’ started to combine well with Messi and create some danger around the Samurai net. Japan however stuck to their guns and continued to break up attacks in any way they could, before taking off on the break with purpose and directness.
With 15 minutes left ‘El Checho’ threw on Ezequiel Lavezzi as Argentina switched to three at the back and pushed forward with everything. Again and again however they were frustrated, with final balls just eluding their targets and the irrepressible home side always seeming to have an outstretched foot or leg there to break up the play. Desperate attacking play left gaping holes on the counter attack, and with minutes left Japan nearly sewed up the game when Maeda was denied by Romero.
Despite dominating possession there can be few complaints from the away team at the result, and Batista must now hope that Julio Grondona and the Argentine FA do not pay too much heed to what was an 'Albiceleste' off-day when deciding who will take the coach job on a permanent basis.