CUIABA, Brazil (AP) — Alberto Zaccheroni is facing arguably the most important team selection of his four-year tenure in Japan, and once again it revolves around whether to start star playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
With just one point from its first two Group C matches, Japan must beat already-qualified Colombia on Tuesday and hope for a slip-up by second-place Ivory Coast in the group's other game to reach the knockout stage for the third time in four World Cups.
The odds are stacked against the Asian champions, and even upholding their end of the equation may be beyond them given Japan's form so far in Brazil and the attacking verve shown by Colombia in its two wins.
Japan needs big performances from its star players in Cuiaba — but one of them might not even be on the pitch.
Kagawa, coming off a disappointing season at club level for Manchester United, was dropped for the 0-0 draw against Greece on Thursday after making little impact in the opening 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast.
It's a gamble that has been scrutinized endlessly in Japan, where Kagawa holds celebrity status, and it remains to be seen if Zaccheroni recalls him for the must-win Colombia match.
"That is something the coach decides and has nothing to do with being Japan's number 10," Kagawa said. "I respect the coach. I felt in the first match that I wasn't performing. In both matches I haven't been able to get the results I wanted.
"But I'm going to try to turn that around in the next match."
It's a selection poser that could define Zaccheroni's tenure that may end after the World Cup, particularly if Japan fails to advance from the group. He was the big European name that Japan's football hierarchy targeted to take the national team to the next level, but it isn't working out that way.