Manageable groups, deep squads full of top-flight talent, and some new faces: hopes were high for Japan and South Korea ahead of the World Cup. Both sides are now staring at elimination, owing to an age-old problem.
The Asian Football Confederation's World Cup might last the bare minimum 12 matches. Australia's Socceroos are going home, Iran remain underdogs, but the AFC's top two - Japan and South Korea - have their backs to the wall with one group game remaining.
Algeria's opening goals against South Korea helped show why the Red Devils, and their neighbors from Japan, still struggle on the world stage. Islam Slimani latched onto a long ball over the top by virtue of will, power, and pace - muscling his way between South Korea's center-backs. Two minutes later, a towering header from a corner put the match to bed.
Algeria looked good value for their lead by virtue of their football, but ultimately physical prowess unlocked the South Korean door. Although balanced possession stats after the game displayed the Koreans strung more passes together, the nature of their heavy defeat points towards bigger concerns.
Goalless against Greece
Japanese manager Alberto Zaccheroni might have empathized with the Koreans as he watched an African side score four for the first time in a World Cup game. Less than 48 hours beforehand, Zaccheroni's Japan could not find a way past Greece's organized and muscular back line.
Japan had almost 70 percent of the ball, completing 570 passes to Greece's 174 - numbers liable to win an appreciative nod from Pep Guardiola. Japan's technical superiority was almost as visible as their inability to convert it into scoring chances. In the same game, they only out-shot the Greeks by 16 to nine. On the bright side, that's the only time so far that Japan or South Korea have gone for goal more than their opponents.
"We're not happy at this stage of the tournament," Zaccheroni said after that game. "We pushed hard to win the game. We had a lot of possession, had a lot of chances and we didn't capitalize on them."
Distracted by Drogba
This 0-0 draw did little to help Japan's hopes following their 2-1 defeat to Ivory Coast - a match that was turned by one of the most imposing physical specimens in football, Didier Drogba. The former Chelsea striker didn't find the net, but leaping to head clear a Japanese corner with his very first action - no other player even jumped with him - proved a point. That moment came in the 62nd minute, as Japan led 1-0. By the 66th minute, the Ivory Coast were 2-1 up, following a pair of goals from crosses - again highlighting Japan's need for dominant, powerful defensive stars.
Perhaps that's one reason why Hong Myung-bo's in charge of the South Korean national side. A composed central defender standing at around 6 feet (1.82 meters), Hong's physical presence helped win him well over 100 senior caps as a player.
Other factors in play, Australia the exception
The eliminated Socceroos displayed the polar opposite seeking to achieve the impossible and progress from a group containing Chile, Spain and the Netherlands. Fight, bite, commitment and sheer physical strength were perhaps the main trump cards of a team without the technical talent exhibited by most World Cup participants. For Australia, what's missing is another golden generation of attacking stars to live up to the legacies of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. The seemingly unbreakable Tim Cahill impressed once again on the big stage, but with his international career ending, Australia will need new stars.
Physicality alone certainly cannot explain all South Korea and Japan's problems, either. While both boast major stars playing in European top divisions, unlike Australia, many of them struggle on the fringes at their clubs, or are flitting between different positions. In the Bundesliga, Koo Ja-cheol and Park Joo-ho both effectively fled to Mainz in search of more minutes - a wish that has only partially been granted. Son Heung-min's season at Bayer Leverkusen was so patchy that he almost lost his place to teenager Julian Brandt, even as a lengthy injury sidelined another Leverkusen candidate on the wing, Sidney Sam.
Shinji Okazaki's been a revelation in attack, also for Mainz, yet he's back in his ungainly home on the right wing for Japan - the position where he failed to impress in two seasons with Stuttgart. Meanwhile, Makoto Hasebe and Hiroshi Kiyotake faced relegation in a miserable season with a Nuremberg side that the Japanese duo failed to carry. Despite several stints as first choice over the past three seasons, Japan's right-back Atsuto Uchida has never really cemented his first-team spot with Schalke.
Even the Bundesliga's most famous Japanese player of old, Shinji Kagawa, is under intense scrutiny. After his time on the Manchester United fringes, Japan's secondary weapon behind Keisuke Honda has been firing blanks. Even his selection against Colombia is reportedly in doubt.
Perhaps, with better attacking output and rhythm for Japan and South Korea, defending more physical sides would have become simpler. Goals have a wonderful stabilizing influence on defenders, provided they're going in at the other end.