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NATAL, Brazil – With Japan's World Cup chances hanging by a thread, coach Alberto Zaccheroni took a big gamble by dropping Shinji Kagawa — one of the team's two genuine international stars — from the starting lineup of their critical match against Greece.
For much of the match it looked like the gambit would work, as Japan threatened Greece's goal time and again. But in the end Japan were unable to convert any of the multitude of chances they created with Greece a man down — and the 0-0 result means they need a miracle to advance to the knockout stages.
Manchester United star Kagawa was a ghostly presence in Japan's opening match against Ivory Coast, spraying passes and rarely making impact. Still the decision to leave out the inventive attacker in a match where Japan needed to regain its offensive flair was a surprise. Yet with AC Milan's Keisuke Honda, Japan's other star, the sole maestro of the Blue Samurai attack, the Asians regained the fluid passing game that had gone missing in their opener — and forced Greece to repel wave after wave of dangerous attack.
The relentless pressure forced the Greeks to play a thuggish game, and Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off in the 38th minute after picking up a second yellow card. After that, Japan pressed forward until the final whistle — dominating possession — but could not unlock the famously stingy Greek defense.
Zaccheroni's decision not to include Kagawa in his starting 11 will surely by scrutinized endlessly in Japan. The Italian called his decision a "tactical" choice aimed at exhausting the Greeks by working Japan's attacks from the side. But without one of their two best players, Japan may have missed the scintilla of imagination to turn opportunity into goal. When Kagawa did come on in the 56th minute he added a new dimension to Japan's attack with fine footwork and clever passes that almost broke the deadlock.
Zaccheroni has been criticized in the past for tinkering with tactics at the last minute.
And the decision to banish Kagawa for most of the match seemed to have caught even some of his players by surprise.
"He's our best player. If he can't do it, you can't find another one like him in all of Japan," said defender Atsuto Uchida. "Today, I think the coach just wanted to use a trump card."