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Despite tough challenge, Japan not quite ready to be spectators at World Cup

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CUIABA, Brazil — Japan's players insisted Monday they will fight to the bitter end as long as they have a shred of a chance to advance to the knockout stages of the World Cup in Tuesday's final group stage game against Colombia.

"We're betting everything on this next match," Japan striker Shinji Okazaki told reporters. "We're going to give it everything we can."

To advance, Japan needs to defeat an impressive Colombia and hope that Greece can subdue Ivory Coast.

To fulfill its side of the bargain, Japan needs to do one thing: rediscover a killer instinct in front of goal. Japan had its fair share of chances in its 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast and an abundance of them in its 0-0 draw with Greece, but an inability to convert has left the Blue Samurai on the brink of elimination.

In the run-up to the World Cup, Japan under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni honed a fluid attack to cure a history of ineptitude before the net. It was defense that was Japan's problem. In Brazil, the old habit of poor finishing has come back to haunt Japan.

Pressure has played its role.

PHOTO: Japan's Makoto Hasebe speaks during a press conference at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014.  Japan play in group C of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
Japan's Makoto Hasebe speaks during a press conference at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014. Japan play in group C of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

"We can't be thinking too much, 'this is the World Cup,'" said Okazaki. "We just have to do what we've been doing up to now."

Veteran striker Yoshito Okubo, who fluffed a golden opportunity in Japan's match against Greece, said he'll go back to the basics in the next match.

"I just need to position myself before goal," said Okubo. "Up to now that hasn't worked well. I just need to keep putting the ball forward."

Zaccheroni remained coy about whether he would start Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa, a surprise omission from the Greece match.

"Let me repeat what I answered before, it doesn't depend on a certain player or attacker," said Zaccheroni. "It depends on the ensemble, on the whole team."

As the players spoke to media, at least one appeared more interested in the Neymar goal playing on the TV behind him than in talking shop as Brazil marched onward in the tournament.

If Japan is eliminated, at least the Asian champions may have the consolation that their fans made an impression on the world by cleaning up their garbage after each match — even if their team fell short.

"I think what they have done is something that makes us very proud," said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe.

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PHOTO: Japan soccer team coach Alberto Zaccheroni speaks during a pressed conference at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014.  Japan play in group C of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
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