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.