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World Cup Diary

SECOND SPOT SCRAMBLE

GAME 27, GROUP F, JUNE 18, 2006 --NUREMBERG
JAPAN 0, CROATIA 0
FINAL

Two straight days of World Cup matches that have lived up to their billing. Can we hope for a third such day? Brazil will show us in a few hours whether Ronaldo really has become more lard-laddling than threatening, though it's unlikely that this group's drama will amount to anything more than a battle for second place, which its two losers so far, Japan and Croatia, begin in a few minutes.

Here we go... and the first foul and squirm of the day, one minute into the game. A loss here for either team is a ticket for home, no matter what the silly announcers say: this is both these teams' world cup final.

3... The Japanese attack appears to have stayed in the locker room, judging from Japan's first free kick into the box: the Japanese attackers were like spectators.

8...Both teams are playing like it's their world cup final, battling for every ball, counting on a loss to Brazil by Australia today. Then again maybe I spoke too soon. The last three minutes have been a more leisurly stretch of gossippy football, more chatter than shooting. Interesting though how both sides are trying to maintain an open game, crossing from one end of the field to the other again and again. Croatia managing more solid builds, but no punching into the box yet.

14 ... A long-distance lobbing strike by Japan's Nakata, going nowhere slowly. The announcers are wrong about the ball: they claim that it's been great for strikers, hell for keepers, who prefer not to grab it so much as to punch it. Bullshit: if the ball favored the strikers, compared with, say, the 2002 World Cup, we'd be seeing more goals, not the fewest, or second-fewest, of any World Cup in history; and it's not as if this has been the defenders' World Cup either.

19... A Croatia attack that almost caught the Japanese off guard: a good pass from midfield to a sliding Crroatian in the Japanese box, but the ball was a few inches out of reach, as seems to be this game's offense, from both team. It's no Tora Tora Tora.

20... PENALTY FOR CROATIA!

SAVED! KAWAGUCHI SAVES IT!

...And the follow-up corner kick led to a Croatia kick against the side of the net. But Japan is still not showing any ability against the Croatian goal.

28... Of course this would not be a 2006 World Cup game without its complement of crossbar shots: Niko Kranjcar just took a shot from outside the box, rocketing it past the rising keeper for what could have been Croatia's belated lead. No luck. Japan answered with a couple of solid attacks of its own, but straight on goal. The attacks are showering down now, with Croatia answering with a well-crafted counterattack and a run by Ivan Klasnic all the way to the far post, shooting it wide past a diving Kawaguchi.

31... Kovac has reason to be upset at the ref: a Japanese player just took a dive, costing Kovac a yellow (and the next game), but Kovac going mercenary on the ref could have cost him a red. The follow-up free kick by the Japanese, a chance to make an impact on this game, sailed to nowhere.

35... Right now neither team deserves a goal.

36... Brilliant set-up for a terrific out-of-the-box shot by Japan's Makata, dead-on goal, but the keeper again was right there.

38... Ambling on the field, even possession, even number of shots on goal for each side (3), though maybe just one real attempts, make that two for Croatia: another shot by Klasnic saved for a corner by Kawaguchi. Croatia didn't do anything with that one.

44... Break out your croissants, get your coffee percolating, take an early bathroom break: this game does not belong among the terrific run of games we've had in the last couple of days. For two teams with everything to lose, it's disappointing.

Halftime... and for your half-time fun, here's a flagrant flag-shot from Germany:

Second half...

This is not a second-place scramble so much as a last-place grab, so far. Here comes a Croatia free kick near the box... Oddly, the referee had words with a couple of players but did not take out a card--unusual restraint from a refereeing coprps that has grabbed cards in an obsessive compulsive way all tournament long.

50... Croatia take their ninth corner kick, play some wrestling near goal, finish by handing the ball to the keeper for a goal-kick.

51... Japan came damn near to scoring on a good close cross into the box, but Yanagisawa, standing right in front of goal, sort of stood there, observing the ball in an untimely moment of Zen. Croatia counterattacked with a nice shot from Ivan Klasnic that the Japanese keeper, earning his keep today, saved.

53...Suddenly the Japanese are playing through a burst of imagination, and so are the Croatians, who took a breakaway attack all the way to goal, a sliding cross to Kranjcar, who slid to kick the ball, but it skimmed wide. The game is coming alive.

56... Croatian attack snuffed by some good defending by Japan and bad acting by Kranjcar.

58... Croatia's game has come down to corners; yet another one that ends in a scrum in front of goal and a Kawaguchi smother. The Japanese seem to have what little momentum is up for grabs in this game, but they're not capitalizing past Croatian muscle. They have a direct kick outside the box. Nakamura takes it, bends it like ... a volleyball above goal.

62... Free kick for Croatia, lobbed in very near goal, headed out: there's not much attempt at playing hard here.

65... Marco Babic takes a Croatia ball in their half, dribbles it all the way into the box, fires, and it's a soundless wind-breaker wide of goal.

The announcers are blaming the slow pace of the game on the heat. They're full of shit of course. It's 82 degrees, hardly a scorcher, and the humidity is an ideal 35 percent. If this isn't perfect football weather, what is? The players are defeating themselves. The weather has nothing to do with it.

This score-line is an insult by these two teams on football's good name.

75... Even the sun is shining doubts on the field in Nuremberg: dark clouds have covered the pitch, glooming up the scene in sync with the two teams' play. We've had a few interesting bursts, and the Japanese are certainly trying to put together some interesting combinations, but without results. Like this latest attempt, a very well built attacl that ended in a mishit inside the box, where the Japanese striker seemed to have plenty of room for something more inspired.

81... Croatia's Ivica Olic just took a run down the left wing and a diagonal shot past the keeper that shaved the near post for Croatia's closest chance yet. Criatia have turned it on. Japan have no answer.

Japan is into its dreaded danger zone, remembering the three goals it gave up to Australia in its first game, in the last ten minutes. Croatians are playing an all-striker offense, but Japan aren't taking advantage.

85... The Croatians look like a team that's just been shot up with adrenaline, and shifted its entire team forward; the Japanese should take that as an invitation to attack, attack, attack. Instead, they're playing into Croatia's strategy. They're going to pay if they're not careful.

88... Croatian corner, down the toilet.

89... Japane's Alex just had a wonderful chance on goal, but he mis-hit it, and the follow-up corner, again presenting the Japanese with a gift of an opportunity--the ball bounced on a Japanese player three yards in front of goal--that went begging. We're into injury time, and the stupid announcers keep telling the audience what percentage of goals have come late in this world cup--without noting that they've usually come at the tail-end of better played games, and to deserving teams (the Australia-Japan result being the exception).

We're into the last minute of play, Croatia had a nice chance inside the box but Japan defended well...

And that's it. Final, dismal score, 0-0.

A game of missed opportunities, stumbles and airballs.

 

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