Japan's Honda finds magic - but Blue Samurai failJapan's Keisuke Honda crosses the ball during the group C World Cup soccer match between Ivory Coast and Japan at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
RECIFE, Brazil (AP) -- It seemed like a perfect way to redeem a half-year of frustration.
The roar Japan's star striker Keisuke Honda let out after putting his team ahead against Ivory Coast in the 16th minute with a beautifully poised left-footed strike appeared to be a release from the derision he suffered this year in his new role as AC Milan's No. 10.
Honda came to the World Cup with something to prove - and the goal he scored showed he still has the lethal touches that made him such a presence with his old club CSKA Moscow.
For Japan, it was a shame that the rest of the team couldn't find the inspiration that inhabited their talismanic player. Ivory Coast kept muscling forward, and something had to give for a Japanese side that showed uncharacteristic sloppiness in its passing. Two strikes early in the second half gave Ivory Coast a 2-1 lead that they kept till the final whistle.
Japan's other star - Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa - was particularly ineffective on Saturday. Anemic in attack, he sprayed passes early in the first half and gave away chances that Japan was lucky not to be punished for.
But Japan can find a measure of consolation in the fact that their best player appears now to have found his form just in time for football's greatest stage.
If the Asians can regroup from defeat in their first match, they still have an outside chance of getting through to the knockout stages. Two victories would put them through, and they have the talent and the depth to beat their next opponents Greece and Colombia.
But Saturday's performance also exposed mental lapses that the Japanese will need to address if they are to have any chance of making it through.
''We need to change our mentality,'' Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima conceded after the loss. ''It's tough to accept defeat in the first match. We just need to give everything for the next match.''