With Colombia demolishing Greece earlier on Saturday, Japan's match against the Ivory Coast looked as though it might turn out to decide who else advances out of Group C. And if it does prove to be decisive, that's good news for the Elephants, who went behind early only to come back for a big win thanks to the late introduction of Didier Drogba.
The Ivory Coast started out on the front foot, getting into promising positions several times early on, but it was Japan who went ahead with virtually their first attack of the game. Shinji Okazaki managed to create chaos in the Elephants' box when he flicked on a corner, and although the Ivorians managed to scramble clear they conceded from the resultant through.
Yuto Nagatomo slipped a pass across the top of the box to Keisuke Honda and the AC Milan man's first touch took Yaya Touré completely out of the match. His second sent the ball screaming past Boubacar Barry and into the back of the net.
Japan hadn't been playing well, but suddenly they were blowing their opponents away. Atsuto Uchida could have made it two after turning Serey Die inside out before shooting straight at Barry, and for a while it looked as though they'd end up running away with the game.
The Elephants slowly worked their way back into contention, however, and had several opportunities to draw level as the half progressed. Their forwards, particularly Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, were wasteful, and although Arthur Boka hit a shot hard enough to break concrete from 30 yards out, Eiji Kawashima managed to parry it without breaking any bones.
The pattern continued in the second half -- Bony managed to miss a point-blank header in the 48th minute, and Gervinho repeated the error ten minutes later. In between, Maya Yoshida managed to down Touré without the referee noticing, much to the Ivory Coast's annoyance. The Elephants' solution to their finishing woes was the introduction of Drogba.
The former Chelsea's star's presence had an instant impact. His first touch was a deft backheel to set up a scoring chance, and although he had nothing to do with the second, it was clear that his introduction had lifted the rest of the team and created space for everyone else to work. Serge Aurier fired in a teasing cross, and Bony finally managed to get good contact on a header, bulleting one past Eiji Kawashima and in to make it 1-1.
The score didn't stay level for long. Again, Aurier pushed down the right, and again he opened up the Japanese defence with a cross. This time it was met by the ample forehead of Gervinho, and Kawashima should have kept the header out. But he didn't, and suddenly the Ivory Coast had their noses in front.
Their momentum was stalled when Boka found himself stretchered off the pitch with fifteen minutes to go, but Japan still had very little going forward, and a slew of wasted chances didn't take away from a huge win for the Elephants.
Ivory Coast starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Boubacar Barry; Arthur Boka (Constant Djakpa 75'), Didier Zokora, Sol Bamba, Serge Auerier; Cheick Tioté, Serey Die (Didier Drogba 62'); Gervinho, Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou; Wilfried Bony (Didier Ya Konan 78').
Goals: Bony 64', Gervinho 66'.
Japan starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Eiji Kawashima; Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Atsuto Uchida; Hotaru Yamaguchi, Makoto Hasebe (Yasuhito Endō 54'); Shinji Kagawa (Yoichiro Kakitani 88'), Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki; Yūya Ōsako (Yoshito Okubo 68').
Goals: Honda 15'.