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A draw felt like a defeat for both sides, both of whom must now win their final group games if they are to have any chance of reaching the knockout stage.
There was Croatian frustration by the end, having missed a penalty, but it must be tinged by an element of relief. They had the better of the game, but were distinctly uninspired, and would have lost but for a horrendous miss from Atsushi Yanagisawa six minutes into the second half.
When Croatia’s back three was carved open by a one-two between Akira Kaji and Naohiro Takahara, Yanagisawa was left six yards out with six yards of empty net to aim at. Instead he jabbed so far wide that Stipe Pletikosa, the recovering Croatia goalkeeper who had been drawn from his goal to close down Kaji, almost bundled it over his own line.
That was a rare chance for Japan, but it was indicative of Kaji’s involvement as his surges down the right stymied the forages of Marko Babic, who had been so dangerous against Brazil. Instead Croatia were left looking to the other flank and Darijo Srna for inspiration. He put in numerous dangerous crosses, but his misfortune is that he will be remembered for the penalty he had saved after 21 minutes.
The Shakhtar Donetsk wing-back scored a crucial kick against Sweden in the qualifiers, and his strike this time was good, but Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, springing low to his left, made a superb block.
The former Portsmouth keeper has developed a reputation for unreliability since making one of the great saves against Saudi Arabia to win the final of the Asian Cup in 2000, but he was excellent yesterday, even if he was almost embarrassed by a backpass that took an atrocious bobble before dribbling just wide of his far post. Croatia will feel he could have been made to work rather harder for his clean sheet.
The final statistics showed Japan had enjoyed more possession, but what chances they had tended to be from long range, and Croatia’s physicality always made them the more dangerous. Their problem, as so often recently, was a lack of creativity, although yesterday they probably weren’t helped by temperatures that the Japan manager Zico said it was “criminal” to play in.
Gone are the days when they would fashion a central midfield triangle from Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic; now they play two holders and Niko Kranjcar, who remains frustratingly inconsistent. For five minutes just after the half-hour he was exceptional, pivoting and lashing a dipping drive against the bar, and then spinning to send a beautifully weighted through-ball to Ivan Klasnic, but for the most part he was anonymous. He had his chance for glory, as a clever square-ball from Klasnic found him unmarked at the top of the box nine minutes into the second half, but he dragged his shot wide. Late substitutes Ivica Olic and Luka Modric were equally unimpressive.
Given Japan must beat Brazil to have any chance of making the second round, they must be contemplating the trip home. Croatia at least have hope, in what, given links of birth and ethnicity, amounts to a derby against Australia next week, but they will need an injection of imagination if they are to unsettle Guus Hiddink’s side.