Tahiti's participation in the 2013 Confederations Cup has been an enjoyable story, if somewhat undermining of the competition itself. Their 10-0 defeat to Spain rather summed up their tournament; they are there to make up the numbers whilst also to give everyone a new perspective from which to view international football. The French-Polynesian island will gain fans from the competition - and probably a few extra tourists - but their players are unlikely to make significant inroads in terms of their personal sporting careers. For those of other nations, however, the competition represents a fantastic opportunity to further enhance their reputation on the world stage.
While Spain and Brazil have found things rather simple in gaining successive wins from the competition so far, Italy, despite having also managed two victories to guarantee qualification for the semi finals, struggled to overcome a impressively free-flowing Japan side on Wednesday night. The 2011 Asian Cup winners found themselves two goals up and utterly dominating the Euro 2012 runners up after 40 minutes. Coach Cesare Prandelli knew things were just going to get worse at 1-0 and duly made a change in system, replacing Alberto Aquilani with Sebastian Giovinco. It worked, and his side came back to eventually run out 4-3 winners, but the focus afterwards wasn't on the poor performance of the Italians at the beginning, nor on their comeback, but rather the impressive nature with which the underdogs had taken ahold of the game.
Arguably foremost in the thoughts of those analysing the game were Japan's trio of attacking midfielders, their goalscorers on the night. Keisuke Honda calmly converted the somewhat debatable penalty that Gigi Buffon had conceded, before Shinji Kagawa doubled his side's advantage with a clinical turning volley into the bottom corner. Whilst it wasn't the most spectacular of volleyed goals, it showcased his impeccable technique which he has arguably not had sufficient chance to show off in his debut season in English football. The final goals of the three was scored by Shinji Okazaki, who levelled the game late on with a darting run and header past Buffon. Those are Japan's only goals at the competition, and ultimately they were all in vain. Nonetheless, to have run Italy so close was an achievement in itself.
Keisuke Honda occupies the central role behind the striker and aims to unlock the opposition defence with a killer pass. With 5 key passes against Italy, no player has played more in a game at the Confederations Cup, and 3 of the 5 other players to have equalled that tally did so for Spain against Tahiti. His 77% pass accuracy in that match gives more of an indication of his ambition with the ball rather than any inadequacies in his passing, with the CSKA Moscow midfielder often looking to split the opposition defence when others might play an easier, less incisive pass. That can be frustrating as a teammate, but given the success he has it would likely be detrimental to the side to try and limit his creativity in order to better retain possession.
In his performance against Italy, Honda was responsible for 3 of the 6 successful dribbles that were completed by both teams, whilst also pitching in defensively with a tackle and 3 clearances. Honda's contract in Russia is in it's final 6 months and it looks like he will be moving on a free before too long, and what a free transfer he'd make. There is little doubting that interest in him will be widespread and increasing after his showing in Brazil.
Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa is Japan's most involved player; he has had 157 touches of the ball so far at the competition - the most in the squad and 5th most overall (and 3 of those to have had more have faced Tahiti). Against Italy he had a full 36 more than any opposition player, with 103 to Andrea Pirlo's 67. Starting on the left, Kagawa drifted infield to get on the ball more often and did so to good effect. With 5 shots, he had the joint most in the match - including his goal and a follow up header that hit the bar when the score was 3-3 - whilst also playing 3 key passes and maintaining an impressive 89% pass accuracy - better than an Italy player other than Christian Maggio (who only played 59 minutes) despite attempting 28 more passes than any Italy player. He clearly works hard to find space and make himself available, and even without the ball his work rate is instantly noticeable. He constantly closes down opposition defenders and has resultantly won possession in the attacking third of the pitch more times (3) than any other player at the Confederations Cup.
Not yet able to hold down a place in the first team at Manchester United, former manager Jurgen Klopp recently expressed his despair at how little gametime he has been given since his move to Old Trafford from Borussia Dortmund. But with Wayne Rooney possibly off this summer, there may be an opening in the United lineup for the Japan international to take advantage of. Furthermore, after his latest showing against some of the finest players on the planet, he has given himself every chance of winning a regular spot under new manager David Moyes.
Shinji Okazaki was utilised on the right in the absence of Hiroshi Kiyotake, having played as the lone striker against Brazil, but his attacking threat was hardly sacrificed despite a new role. The versatile Stuttgart player scored once and hit the woodwork twice more from his 5 attempts on his way to a man of the match- winning rating of 9.03. Vastly different from Kagawa on the opposite wing, Okazaki remained on the periphery of the game for long periods, only attempting 24 passes in his 90 minutes on the pitch. He completed just 79% of those passes and created only 1 of Japan's 23 goalscoring chances. But that is not his game, his threat is in front of goal. Whilst a fairly well-known entity at a mid-table Bundesliga side before the tournament, he will certainly have been noticed after this display.
Unfortunately for Japan, their efforts were futile and they are already out of the competition. Their final match against Mexico has nothing but the pride of Asia against that of Central and North America riding on it. However, whilst before the tournament Japan would have been favourites to finish bottom of Group A, performances at the competition will have changed many of those preconceptions, and Mexico could well be in for a surprise this weekend.