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Japan's World Cup hopes quashed again by opponent's star player - and own poor finishing

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CUIABA, Brazil — For Japan, this World Cup has been a nightmare revisited: The Asian champions seize momentum with waves of dangerous attack, and little payoff. Then their opponent's talismanic player comes on as a second-half substitute — and Japan wilts under pressure.

In Japan's first match, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba was the nemesis. On Tuesday, it was Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez.

In both encounters, there was a palpable shift of energy at the stadium when those stars appeared. And on Tuesday, the goal that would help the Colombians break a 1-1 halftime deadlock seemed inevitable.

Striker Yoichiro Kiyotake admitted after the match that ended Japan's World Cup adventure: "The momentum shifted."

The second nightmare that Japan revisited on Tuesday night was abysmal finishing.

Lack of killer instinct plagued them in their 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast, again in a 0-0 draw with Greece, and finally Tuesday night against Colombia. The Latin Americans stormed to a 4-1 rout in a match that Japan dominated for long stretches.

For much of the contest, Japan seemed to have rediscovered its entertaining attacking flair against a Colombian side that was already into the knockout stages and chose to rest key players.

PHOTO: Japan's Shinji Kagawa overruns the ball during the group C World Cup soccer match between Japan and Colombia at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Japan's Shinji Kagawa overruns the ball during the group C World Cup soccer match between Japan and Colombia at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The Asians were the better team in the first half and created chances — but simply could not convert them into goals.

That exposed Japan to Colombian counterattacks, the first leading to a penalty in the 17th minute.

Japan ended its scoring drought when Shinji Okazaki headed in a fine Keisuke Honda cross in first-half injury time, triggering renewed hope that the World Cup wasn't over for them. With Greece up 1-0 in the other Group C match, Japan just needed to score again to break, improbably, into the knockout stages.

Rodriguez quickly put an end to such hopes.

As a second-half substitute, Rodriguez energized his teammates with a combination of charisma and dazzling footwork. Dribbling into Japan's box, he fed a perfect ball to Jackson Martinez, who coolly slotted home in the 55th minute to make it 2-1.

Honda's blunt assessment: "They converted their chances. We didn't convert ours."

Honda was all over the pitch orchestrating the Japan attack and overshadowing Shinji Kagawa, who returned to the starting lineup after being left out in the last match against Greece. Honda came close to scoring in the 33rd minute with a curling free kick that went just wide.

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni wouldn't be drawn on his future after four years in the job.

"We will go back to Japan and after that I'll speak with the management," Zaccheroni said. "And we'll let you know whether or not I will stay."

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