It’s hard to fathom what Japan’s game plan was on Sunday when they took on Costa Rica at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in the FIFA World Cup.
The most logical explanation is that they were intent on lulling the opposition into a false sense of security.
That’s the only way to make sense of an eerily pedestrian first-half display – from both sides, to be fair – that would have left the 41,479 in attendance wondering what all the fuss about a World Cup was about.
But Japan were the biggest culprits to blame for the sheer tedium. Having just claimed a massive 2-1 victory over Germany four days ago, they came into the match against opponents who had been thrashed 7-0 by Spain knowing victory would all but guarantee them a place in the round of 16.
For all the possession they boasted, they hardly seemed interested in finding an alternative route to goal when the repeated wing play failed to reap the desired results.
And even if the plan had indeed been to bore Costa Rica into submission (it obviously wasn’t), the big problem?
Japan ended up lulling themselves to sleep, and were finally hit with the archetypal suction blow when Keysher Fuller pounced on a defensive half with nine minutes left to score and give the Costa Ricans a 1-0 triumph.
So after all the good work they achieved in beating Germany, much of it has been undone and the Japanese now have the unenviable task of needing a result against Spain on Thursday if they are to progress to the knockout round.
Punters will certainly have to hold their hands up for a display that desperately lacked urgency and invention.
Nevertheless, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu must take the main responsibility with some peculiar team selections.
Firstly, he opted to make five changes to the XI that started against Germany with three in attack as Ritsu Doan, Ayase Ueda and Yuki Soma came in for Takefusa Kubo, Daizen Maeda and Junya Ito.
Promoting Doan from the bench was understandable given he had grabbed the equalizer against Germany as a substitute, but the inclusion of Ueda and Soma – both with less than ten caps respectively – was harder to rationalize, especially with the likes of Kaoru Mitoma, Takuma Asano and Takumi Minamino waiting in the wings.
The trio of Doan, Ueda and Soma – along with chief playmaker Daichi Kamada – spent the entire first half looking like a quartet that hadn’t played much together before. The truth is, they actually don’t have it.
While the engine room of Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita continued to win possession in the middle of the park, any potential attack collapsed within seconds as Samurai Blue struggled to string together more than three passes in the final third.
The changes finally came after the break with Moriyasu opting to switch to a back-three, the same move that led to the revival against the Germans.
Strangely again, instead of Takehiro Tomiyasu, who performed admirably four days earlier, it was Hiroki Ito who came on as a spare centre-back only for him to constantly give away possession with some sloppy long passes bordering on laughable tries.
It wasn’t until after the hour that Moriyasu brought on Mitoma, arguably Japan’s most exciting player, and it wasn’t long before he started causing Costa Rica problems on the left.
Unfortunately for Japan, he fought a lonely cause. Too many around him had already been dulled by their own doing.
Instead, it was Costa Rica who managed to find that extra bit of life in them at the end to win.
Japan must now wake up from their slumber – and that shouldn’t be too difficult given the rude shock that awaits in the form of Spain – lest they want their World Cup campaign to end in the group stages.