Japan struggle to become serious contenders
Alberto Zaccheroni’s bid to turn Japan into serious contenders on the world stage will face a tough test at the Confederations Cup.
CSKA Moscow talisman Keisuke Honda fired an injury-time penality to save a 1-1 draw on Wednesday with Australia, which earned the Asian champions their fifth straight ticket to the World Cup with one more qualifier remaining.
However, in Honda’s absence due to injury or club commitment, the inconsistent Blue Samurai had lost their two previous matches -- a 2-1 qualifying loss away to Jordan in March and a 2-0 friendly defeat to under-strength Bulgaria last week.
The results make it doubtful if Japan, famous for organisation but lacking finishing power and tight defence against set plays, can earn a point in Group A at the tournament of continental champions in Brazil, opening on June 15.
Japan will play five-time World Cup champions Brazil, four-time winners Italy and Olympic gold medallists Mexico in their group.
“We will keep on working to surprise the world,” said Zaccheroni, a former AC Milan and Juventus coach who took over the Blue Samurai after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“In Europe where I come from, a lot of people think the world never changes. I don’t,” said the 60-year-old Italian tactician. “I want to show we’re on a par with the world’s best teams on football’s biggest stage.”
Honda, who helped CSKA to the Russian league and Cup double and is looking for a deal in a higher-profile league in Europe after more than three years in Moscow, was more upbeat and promised a giant-killing feat.
“You may not expect much of us but I will go to the Confederations Cup with determination to win the title,” said the 26-year-old bleach blonde.
Honda, endowed with physical strength and broad vision, scored two goals and provided another when Japan reached the last 16 in 2010 for their best ever World Cup result on foreign soil.
The left-footer also helped them win a record fourth Asian Cup title in 2011, where he was named the most valuable player. He has scored five goals in the next year World Cup final qualifying round.
Zaccheroni has relied on Honda in central midfield, depriving Manchester United rookie Shinji Kagawa of his favourite position in the hole behind the lone striker.
Kagawa believes Japan players need to be “more selfish” like Honda, as teamwork alone cannot help. “The fact that we haven’t been able to win when Keisuke isn’t around says everything.”
Zaccheroni’s 23-strong Confed squad has 14 Europe-based players, including defenders Yuto Nagatomo of Inter-Milan, Atsuto Uchida of Schalke 04 and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida.
The coach noted that top clubs in Europe like Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United are all aggressive.
“To play and win in football, you need such intensity. I will push my team to play like that.”
Zaccheroni’s Japan have an impressive record against big teams.
They beat Lionel Messi-led Argentina 1-0 at home for a historic win that marked Zaccheroni’s debut as Japan coach.
In October last year, Japan beat France 1-0 in an away friendly. It was Japan’s first-ever victory against the 1998 World Cup winners in six games, following one draw and four defeats.
But four days later, Japan bowed to Brazil 4-0 in another friendly in neutral Wroclaw, Poland, extending their losing streak against the giants to nine at the full international level.