NUREMBERG, Germany -- Croatia's World Cup ambitions suffered a setback when the team failed to beat Japan in a lively and dynamic -- but goalless -- match on Sunday (18 June). The Croats played a highly offensive game, relying on fast counterattacks and long passes deep into the opponents' half. Coach Zlatko Kranjcar took the risk of slackening his team's control of the middle of the field by putting three forwards close to Japan's goal. The Japanese, too, opted for offensive football to the delight of the full stadium in Nuremberg and millions in front of television sets around the world. The Japanese players mounted slower attacks passing the balls more often in an attempt to create open spaces in Croatia's defence line. The team's best chance to score came in the 21st minute when Miyamoto brought down veteran striker Dado Prso inside the box. The referee awarded the Croats a penalty kick which was taken by Srna. A brilliant save by goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi kept Japan's World Cup hopes alive. Croatia's second memorable opportunity came in the 28th minute when Niko Kranjcar fired a vicious shot from a distance of more than 20m, but hit the crossbar. The Croats tried to use their height advantage over the Japanese by sending dangerous crosses, but a few good headers by Prso and his teammates either went wide or were caught by Kawaguchi.
Statistics confirmed that both teams were evenly matched and deserved the draw. The Japanese controlled the ball 55 per cent of the time, Croatia, 45 per cent. The Croats fired 15 shots at their opponents' goal, five of which were on-target. The Japanese fired 10 shots, four of them on-target.
When the three minutes of stoppage time were over, both teams were worse off than they were before the match. With just one point in their first two matches in Group F, both teams will desperately need victories to get to the next phase of the tournament. Japan will face Brazil, while Croatia will meet the dangerous Australians on 22 June.
The match between Croatia and Japan will remain in history as Croatia's first ever draw in the World Cup finals. The team has won six matches and lost five so far. The team stunned the soccer world when it ended third in the 1998 tournament, keeping up with a tradition of a southeast European team pulling a major World Cup upset. Bulgaria placed third in the United States in 1994 and Turkey unexpectedly won the bronze in Korea-Japan 2002. (By Ivan Tchomakov for Southeast European Times)
Japan: Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Akira Kaji, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (cap), Yuji Nakazawa, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Takashi Fukunishi (Junichi Inamoto 46), Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Santos, Shunsuke Nakamura, Atsushi Yanagisawa (Keiji Tamada 62), Naohiro Takahara (Masashi Oguro 85)
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa, Dario Simic, Robert Kovac, Josip Simunic, Darijo Srna (Ivan Bosnjak 87), Igor Tudor (Ivica Olic 70), Niko Kovac (cap), Marko Babic, Niko Kranjcar (Luka Modric 78), Ivan Klasnic, Dado Prso
Referee: F. De Bleeckere (Belgium)