By Nick Mulvenney
A desperate rearguard action from 10-man Greece held Japan to a 0-0 draw that suited neither side in a match which ended with boos ringing around the Dunas arena and sent Colombia into the last 16 of the World Cup on Thursday.
Both sides were looking to get their campaigns back on track after losing their opening encounters and Greece will be the happier after playing for 52 minutes without skipper Kostas Katsouranis, who was sent off for two yellow card offences.
Japan dominated possession but were unable to make the most of the chances they created against a Greek defence which once again looked like the one that conceded four goals in 10 qualifying matches for Brazil.
“We tried to attack. We had to play our match. We couldn’t settle for a draw. This is not a positive result. We absolutely needed to win,” said Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, whose side opened their campaign with a 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast.
“We lacked ideas for the final ball. We did a lot of good things but we really lacked speed.”
The Asian champions stayed true to the attacking style that made them the first country to qualify for Brazil but will now need to beat Colombia in their final match to have a chance of reaching the knockout stages for a third time.
Greece, who lost their opener 3-0 to Colombia, have never been past the group stage at a World Cup but victory over Ivory Coast could still get them through to the last 16.
“We were good in terms of determination, courage and defence but we weren’t able to counter-attack,” said Greece coach Fernando Santos.
“Without the red card we probably could have won the game.”
Colombia top Group C with six points from their first two games ahead of Ivory Coast with three. Japan face the Colombians on Tuesday in Cuiaba, when Greece meet the African team in Fortaleza.
Japan, who started with attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa on the bench, had the better of a goalless first half without ever really penetrating the Greek defence.
Yuya Osako created the best of Japan’s chances – coming closest when he curled a shot just wide of the post after 21 minutes – while a Keisuke Honda free kick from the edge of the box tested Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.
Katsouranis had been cautioned for fouling Yuya Osako in the 27th minute and was sent off 11 minutes later after picking up a second yellow card for taking Japan captain Makoto Hasebe’s legs away from underneath him.
A veteran of Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph, midfielder Katsouranis is just two days away from his 35th birthday and will be particularly disappointed that both offences took place deep in the Japan half well away from the danger area.
It was Greece who came closest to opening the scoring in the remaining minutes before halftime, though, when Vassilis Torosidis launched a thunderbolt of a shot which Eiji Kawashima parried away at full stretch.
Kagawa came on to a great ovation in the 57th minute but Greece nearly snatched the lead three minutes when substitute striker Theofanis Gekas got a header on target which Kawashima got down well to turn around the post.
Japan should have been ahead after 68 minutes when a sublime Hotaru Yamaguchi pass set Atsuto Uchida free in the box but when the defender’s square ball found Yoshito Okubo, the striker could only blast the ball into the crowd from close range.
Another Okubo long-range effort had Karnezis parrying away again 10 minutes later and the Japanese continued to pour forward.