Ivory Coast 2 (Bony 64', Gervinho 66'), Japan 1 (Honda 15')
FINAL: Ivory Coast takes down Japan, 2-1
Only minutes after Didier Drogba came onto the pitch, Les Elephants scored back-to-back header goals that flipped a one-goal deficit into a one-goal lead. Coincidence? Who knows, but the first half was rife with missed opportunities for the Ivory Coast. The second half the powerful squad was finally able to finish in front of the net, and it turned into a significant opening-match victory in Group C. Should the Ivory Coast advance from its group, it would be the first time advancing into the knockout rounds.
94' -- A few chips in the box, a few bouncing headers but nothing substantial as Japan fails to take advantage late.
90' -- We'll have four minutes of extra time. Let's see if Japan can mount a final effort (or if Ivory Coast can milk the clock with injuries).
88' -- Two consecutive sequences see Japanese strikers go down in the box, trying to bait the referees into a penalty. Don't think it's going to work. If they're going to score, it's going to have to be legitimate.
85' -- And the sub-of-the-match (Drogba) nearly tallies a third goal for his side off an excellent pass from Kalou inside the box. It deflected off a Japanese defender earning a corner that yielded little. Still, have to like that Les Elephants haven't stopped pressing.
79' -- Good possession from Kagawa up in the attacking third, but the Ivory Coast has packed in its defense. I mentioned it earlier, but one goal wasn't going to keep this Ivory Coast team at bay. Japan probably needed a second tally, earlier.
10:33 p.m. ET: And here's Gervinho's header, which should've probably been kept out.
74' -- Japan is (understandably) shell-shocked. It's doing all it can to tie it back up, but it's no longer in control. The Ivory Coast's two goals came within 100 seconds of each other. Again, #UnleashTheDrog
10:28 p.m. ET: The first goal from Bony --
10:26 p.m. ET: Are you listening, Ivory Coast manager?
The mere presence of Drogba on the pitch awakens the Ivory Coast. Wow. #WorldCup2014— Chris Dier (@chrisdier) June 15, 2014
65' -- ANOTHER GOAL!! LES ELEPHANTS!! Back-to-back scores have the Ivory Coast up 2-1 over Japan. Saurier to Gervinho, who heads it inside the near post. Good placement but Kawashima should've had it. The Ivory Coast isn't complaining.
64' -- GOAL!!! IVORY COAST!! Wilfried Bony finally (!!) connects on a cross, smashing it into the corner with a skidding header. Aurier with a beautiful service. I don't think it's coincidence that the Ivory Coast scored within two minutes of Drogba coming in.
62' -- We've got a Drogba sighting. Manager Sabri Lamouchi had evidently seen one too many chances missed in front of the net and Drogba comes in for Serey Die. The Chelsea legend is coming on.
57' -- Toure takes a fall in the box, but no penalty. He wanted one badly, but Toure's acting wasn't enough to warrant the call. Good no-call.
10:12 p.m. ET: Former US national team member Jay Demerit is wondering the same thing. Not a bad hashtag, either --
53' -- Sub for Japan: Midfielder Hasebe out, Yasuhito Endo in. Hasebe yields the captain's band. Speaking of subs, where, oh where is Didier Drogba?
51' -- A bad turnover in the back from Kalou leaves Hasebe with a decent chance from outside the box, but he pushes it wide. The Japanese have looked more aggressive in the opening sequence.
47' -- The Ivory Coast are back at it again, attacking the Japanese from all angles. Still, nothing. Wilfried Bony tried to head a deflected cross but wasn't able to keep it on frame. Story. Of. The. Game.
Halftime: Japan 1, Ivory Coast 0 --
Keisuke Honda's wonderful strike (his third World Cup goal) from the left side of the box is the difference as Japan looks entirely comfortable on the pitch with the bigger Ivory Coast team. Les Elephants have had four or five chances be it in the air or from low services from the corner, and still haven't managed to capitalize. In reality, their best chances have been blasts from way outside the box, which Kawashima has handled with ease. Might we see Didier Drogba to start the second half? One would have to think he could clean up the mess in front of Japan's goal.
The Japanese, on the other hand, can't continue to bend. They need to look to attack, score a second goal and really put the Ivory Coast on its heels. With a two-goal lead, it's fair to pack in the defense, but a defensive shift, with the current score, seems a bit too conservative.
42' -- Again, a great chance from Kalou off a Boka service from the left side, but the header is nowhere near the frame. This first half is all about the Ivory Coast's missed chances.
9:42 p.m. ET: One has to wonder whether ..
Drogba would have two goals by now.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) June 15, 2014
38' -- Toure, Gervinho, and Wilfried Bony continue to be active in the attacking third, but nothing dangerous has really materialized. That's a credit to Japan's defensive effort.
35' -- Gervinho again with a nice run. Really feels like if the Ivory Coast is going to catch the Japenese, it will either be off a set piece or on a counter attack. Arthur Boka blasted a rebound and Les Elephants finally tested the keeper, but the score remains the same.
32' -- It's pouring in Recife. Keep an eye on how it affects Japan's quick touches.
30' -- Bad foul from Okazaka as he trekked back on defense and took down Gervinho. Let's see if they can make anything of it for a change. Decent shot from Arthur Boka, but again, not on frame. Japan's keeper Kawashima has hardly been tested.
27' -- Another nice sequence from Toure to Kalou, but he blasted it over from outside the box. The IC's best chances came in the first ten minutes with little to show since then.
9:26 p.m. ET: Textbook face palm from Drogba --
24' -- Yaya Toure spoils a free kick from a few yards past the box as he bumps it too high of the cross bar. Toure hasn't made nearly the impact one would expect.
9:23 p.m ET: Here's Honda blast to make it 1-0 --
20' -- Right back Uchida nearly makes it a second for Japan as the Ivory Coast could really, really use a timeout. The Japanese earned a corner, then nearly scored again before Barry punches it to safety.
18' -- The Japanese continue to attack and put the IC defense on its heels. Les Elephants look extremely unsettled with Japan's quick pace and aren't possessing the ball nearly as much as early on.
15' -- GOAL!!! JAPAN!! Keisuke Honda buries one from the top of the box with his left foot. One touch, set up the shot, boom. The Milan midfielder celebrated his 28th birthday on Friday. Not too shabby.
9:15 p.m. ET: Not too sure what's going on with this dude, but hey, when in Brazil...
10' -- Serge Aurier with another cross along the right flank. The Ivory Coast is clearly picking on the right side of Japan's defense, but no one has been there to receive the pass.
7' -- Another corner for the IC goes for nothing, but again, the Elephants maintain possession. Not exactly encouraging for the Japenese but play could open up significantly, especially with their strong midfield.
5' -- The Japanese are packing it on on defense as the Ivory Coast continues peppering the box with crosses. One figures to land before the night is out.
3' -- Kalou with a relatively dangerous cross early on, headed out by the Japanese which draws the first corner. Proves harmless, but the Ivory Coast maintains possession.
1' -- We're off from Recife.
Japan vs. Ivory Coast (Group C) | Kickoff: 6/14, 9 p.m. ET | Stadium: Pernambuco, Recife
Pregame: If you're pulling for Les Elephants, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Manager Sabri Lamouchi said yesterday that "all of his players are physically ready to play tomorrow," but they won't all be 100 percent. That means roving midfielder Yaya Toure should play against Japan, despite a lingering hamstring injury that offered doubt over his status.
Given what we saw from Colombia against Greece earlier on Saturday, this game is massive as it establishes a clear pecking order for Group C. Even going into it, both sides match up fairly even. Sure, the Ivory Coast has the star power and name recognition, but Japan's attacking forwards Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Shinji Okazaki (FSC Mainz in the Bundesliga) are just as dangerous. Not to mention, the Japanese made it to the Round of 16 in 2010 -- something the Ivory Coast has never managed. The Japanese play fast and move the ball extremely well. Expect it to test the Ivory Coast's aging defense.
Starters for Ivory Coast (4-2-3-1): Barry, Boka, Zokora, Kalou, Tiote, Gervinho, Bony, Aurier, Toure, Serey, Bamba.
Yes, that means 36-year-old Didier Drogba will be coming off the bench. In all likelihood, this is the Ivory Coast's all-time leading scorer's final World Cup.
Starters for Japan (4-2-3-1) Kawashima, Uchida, Nagatomo, Morishige, Okazaki, Kagawa, Yamaguchi, Hasebe, Osako, Yoshida.
The Ivory Coast finally, finally earned a fortuitous group draw after back-to-back brutal groups in 2006 and 2010. Japan, in contrast, is looking to get back to the Round of 16 for the second-straight World Cup and the third time in the last four tournaments.
When the Japanese are clicking, it's usually due to clinical, precise passing, and they have the potential to pick apart the Ivory Coast's defense. However, this year's World Cup is probably the last for Didier Drogba (never say never) and potentially Yaya Toure, meaning that neither want to end a World Cup career having never advanced out of the group stages.
The Elephants scored 15 goals in qualifying, and are always dangerous in the air on set pieces. Look for the Ivory Coast to take advantage of their size and strength, an edge they possess over most teams in the field.
The winner of this match could set themselves up to advance in a relatively weak group. That should only raise the stakes, as if they weren't high enough.