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Zico’s boys need big win

by James Mulligan

SAITAMA — One goal won’t cut the mustard for Japan against Scotland in their Kirin Cup decider. Two ain’t that helpful, either.

News photoJapan striker Seiichiro Maki controls the ball during the national team’s practice ahead of an international friendly against Scotland.

Zico’s Boys in Blue go into Saturday’s game at Saitama Stadium needing a victory by three clear goals if they are to win the tournament in Japan’s final home game before the World Cup.

Goals aren’t something that have been easy to come by for Japan recently.

A makeshift side faced Bulgaria in the Kirin Cup opener in Osaka on Tuesday and despite Japan creating a raft of chances, Seiichiro Maki was the only one to get on the score sheet in the 2-1 loss.

Even then, Maki didn’t know too much about the goal, the ball ricocheting off the unsighted striker’s leg and into the net.

Two days later, Scotland showed Japan how it was done with a 5-1 thumping of Bulgaria in Kobe, courtesy of debut doubles for Rangers pair Kris Boyd and Chris Burke and one for Everton’s James McFadden.

All of which means the bar is set for Japan at a victory by three clear goals, something Zico is confident his team can manage.

“It’s important to get off to a quick start, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves — we need the first goal,” the Japan coach said Friday.

“We just need to play smart . . . if we play like we normally do, then we’ll be OK.

“A sellout 60,000-plus crowd promises to give Japan a rousing sendoff to Germany, and Zico is determined his charges don’t let down their supporters.

“This is our last game in Japan . . . we have to play aggressive and go for the points,” Zico said.

Zico has chosen Keiji Tamada and Tatsuhiko Kubo as his forwards for the game, reassured by both Tamada’s swashbuckling display against Bulgaria and Kubo’s quick recovery from an ankle injury.

“We’ve spoken to the Doctor and Kubo has been given the all-clear to play,” Zico said.

Urawa Reds midfielder Shinji Ono — starting on Saturday after an impressive substitute performance on Tuesday — believes the goals Japan craves are just around the corner.

“We had lots of chances against Bulgaria, but didn’t take them,” Ono said.

“We have to make sure we are totally focused and if we turn opportunities into goals then we should be OK.”

Scotland manager Walter Smith has brought an experimental squad with him as he looks ahead to the Euro 2008 qualifiers, forced in part by some players’ club commitments.

Four Hearts players are playing in the Scottish Cup final on Saturday, while Celtic boss Gordon Strachan refused to release three internationals because they were needed for testimonials for Roy Keane against Manchester United and Alan Shearer against Newcastle United.

Smith is aware there maybe more at stake for those Japan players on the fringes of Zico’s final World Cup squad than for the Scotland players looking forward to their summer holidays.

“The game against Japan will be a very difficult one because it’s an opportunity for the Japanese players to show they should be selected for the World Cup,” Smith said.

“I think we are in for a very tough game without even looking at the tactical side of it. Japan will be determined to do well and obviously will not want to lose in front of a big crowd.”

Both Scotland and Bulgaria didn’t qualify for the World Cup.

Zico names his final World Cup squad on Monday — the deadline for all countries competing in Germany — before Japan heads to the J-Village facilities in Fukushima on May 17 for a week-long camp.

The Boys in Blue leave for Germany on May 26, where they play the host country in a friendly on May 30 and Malta on June 4.

Japan’s first opponent in World Cup Group F is Australia in Kaiserslautern on June 12.

Saturday’s Starting XI (4-4-2):

Goalkeeper: Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Jubilo Iwata)

Defenders: Akira Kaji (Gamba Osaka), Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama F. Marinos), Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (Gamba Osaka), Alex Santos (Urawa Reds)

Midfielders: Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers), Takashi Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Shinji Ono (Urawa Reds), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka)

Forwards: Tatsuhiko Kubo (Yokohama F. Marinos), Keiji Tamada (Nagoya Grampus Eight).