Japan may never have a better opportunity to bring Asia’s woeful World Cup record against South American opposition to an end than when they face Paraguay in the second round in Pretoria tonight.
No Asian team has ever beaten a South American side at the World Cup. Of the 10 encounters between the continents, South America have won eight times with two games drawn — North Korea vs Chile 1-1 in 1966 and South Korea vs Bolivia 0-0 in 1994.
However, Japan’s flying form in the group stage this time around makes them strong candidates to break that jinx and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time.
While Paraguay topped a group that included world champions Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand, they have rarely shown the attacking verve expected of a team featuring top-class forwards Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez.
Japan, meanwhile, have been one of the tournament’s delights with their free-flowing attacking style and set-piece mastery.
After dominating Denmark 3-1 in their final group game, striker Keisuke Honda, who scored a stunning 30m freekick, has now set his sights on a place in the last eight.
“For me, for the team, the next game is more important because we want to show the Japanese people that nothing is impossible,” he said.
Japan have also shown the rest of the teams at the World Cup that scoring direct from a freekick with the much-maligned Jabulani ball is far from impossible.
Honda and Yasuhito Endo scored stunners in the same game against Denmark and defender Tulio said Japan could exploit their set-piece superiority again.
“They [Paraguay] will be trying everything on to rile us. Every goal is so much more precious now in this knockout stage and it is important we try to get our noses in front first,” he told fifa.com. “One thing we will have to try and do is vary our set-pieces to surprise them.”
Paraguay would be happy to get goals from anywhere at the moment after a lackluster 0-0 draw with New Zealand in the final group game highlighted their shot-shy struggles.
Defender Julio Cesar Caceres said Paraguay were not satisfied with just reaching the second round, which they had achieved three times before.
“We’re happy that we went through the first round, but our objective is to keep writing history and the match against Japan is the most important thing,” he said. “We are capable of playing a great match. Japan is a quick team, we have to think about every detail against them.”