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Argentina Exploits Mistake by Japan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having waited 68 years for this opportunity, its first match in a World Cup tournament, Japan lasted 28 minutes before committing the inevitable--and in this case, fatal--rookie mistake.

Midfielder Hiroshi Nanami turned the ball over in his own penalty area, coughing it up to the worst option on the field, Argentina forward Gabriel Batistuta, and the man they call “Batigol” needed a blink of an eye to make the Japanese pay for it.

Swiftly, Batistuta swooped in to chest the ball down, then wheeled and chipped Japan’s onrushing goalkeeper, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, from eight yards for the only goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory Sunday afternoon in Toulouse.

It was a routine strike for Batistuta, whose goal was the 44th of his international career with Argentina, but it was devastating for Japan, which outran and outworked the heavily favored Argentines, only to be done in by its inability to finish forays into the Argentina 18-yard box.

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Japan had three chances to equalize in the last 15 minutes, but squandered them all.

Hidetoshi Nakata, the 21-year-old ginger-haired star of the Japan’s professional J-League, fed a perfect through pass but it was shanked from the edge of the box in the 77th minute.

Six minutes later, Japan lofted a long ball into the Argentine penalty area, with Yutaka Akita outleaping his marker to head the ball across the goalmouth just outside the far post. Fullback Naoki Soma, pushing up on the play, tried to slide the bounding ball into the net, but missed by inches.

Finally, in the 90th minute, Brazilian-born reserve Wagner Lopes latched onto a cross in the Argentine box, but his point-blank shot on goal struck the leg of defender Roberto Ayala and skittered just wide of the right post.

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Such wasted chances are certain to intensify the criticism of Japan Coach Takeshi Okada for cutting top scorer “King” Kazu Miura, who scored 15 goals in 14 qualification matches, just before the World Cup.

Okada’s rationale: At 31, Miura had suddenly gotten too old.

When several members of the Japanese media began to ask about Miura after Sunday’s match, Soma tried to defuse the issue, saying, “We shouldn’t be too negative. There are still two matches left to win.

“But,” he had to admit, “it is true we needed more scoring opportunities in the opposition penalty area.”

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Of course, had Batistuta not hit the posts on shots in the 38th and 79th minutes, he would have finished with a hat trick, rendering all debate over the Japanese team selection moot.

With 44 goals in 62 international matches, Batistuta is Argentina’s all-time leading scorer, but he said after the match, “I’d swap the reassurance of a goal by me for a [World Cup] victory for the team.”

Argentina is among the favorites to win the trophy in 1998, but for that to occur, its players realize they need to step up the pace from Sunday’s lackluster performance.

“The first minutes of the game weren’t very good, because the two teams were sizing each other up,” said midfielder Juan Veron. “As soon as we changed our rhythm of play, the Japanese were out of their depth. That is what we have to do to win our next matches--speed up the pace and not let the match go to sleep. Obviously, we have to improve our football if we want to win the World Cup.”

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Argentina captain Diego Simeone noted that “every team [here] is finding it hard to win. We have only just started walking. Now we must improve.”


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