Japan (0-0-0) vs. Ivory Coast (0-0-0), 9 p.m. (ET)

 

The Sports Network

Recife, Brazil (SportsNetwork.com) - Due to the wide-open nature of Group C, every match is crucial.

And with the Ivory Coast and Japan opening their World Cup campaigns against one another at the Arena Pernambuco on Saturday, both nations will be looking to avoid falling behind in the early going.

The Ivory Coast will fancy its chances of advancing to the knockout round after being drawn into the "Group of Death" in both of its previous two World Cups.

The Elephants were drawn against Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006 as well as Brazil and Portugal four years later, but with Greece and Colombia rounding out Group C of this year's tournament, the African nation has a tremendous opportunity to get beyond the group stage for the first time in its history.

It could be the last hurrah for the Ivory Coast's golden generation. The well- traveled quartet of Yaya and Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora have combined for nearly 400 international appearances, and the favorable draw for the 2014 World Cup should ease some of the pressure on the Elephants this summer.

"This is our last chance to shine at this level," Kolo Toure told FIFA's official website this week. "I'm 33 and Didier's 36 and we're closer to the end of our careers than the start. We're going to enjoy this World Cup and show a different side to ourselves than we did the last two times, when we didn't really perform that well. We'll be doing what we can to be better."

Toure also explained what went wrong for the team in previous World Cups and how they will use their experience this time around.

"In 2006 we were in dreamland," the Liverpool defender continued. "It was the first time our country had ever qualified for such a big competition. We were naive and we didn't focus enough on the job in hand.

"In 2010 I felt we were a little bit stronger, thanks to the experience we'd had four years earlier. We were more determined when we went to South Africa but it was not enough. We have made some progress, though, and it's good for us to have survivors from the last two World Cups in the team today. We've learned the lessons of the past and we're making sure we pass on our knowledge to the younger players."

But even while the caliber of the Ivory Coast's opponents pales in comparison to years past, the highly competitive nature of the group should make each match intriguing, beginning with the opener against Japan.

The Asian nation dominated the region in qualifying to become one of the first to secure a spot in this summer's World Cup.

Shinji Okazaki, who enjoyed a banner year with Mainz in the Bundesliga this past season, played a starring role for Japan as his eight goals put him atop the scoring chart for Asian qualifiers.

Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda also figure to be important parts to Japan's World Cup efforts, offering creativity and versatility going forward.

In the heart of the midfield, Japan was sweating the fitness of captain Makoto Hasebe, who will shrug off a knee injury to feature against the Ivory Coast on Saturday.

"There is no problem (with the knee) and I have been taking part in full training," Hasebe said after Japan's training session on Wednesday. "Obviously it is the coach that decides but I am ready to go."

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