The long road toward the 2010 World Cup begins for Japan on Wednesday night with a first qualification match against Thailand at Saitama Stadium 2002.
But to assume the path is clear for a fourth consecutive appearance at soccer’s top table is to ignore the pitfalls that lie ahead in an Asian soccer landscape that has changed since Germany 2006.
Takeshi Okada leads his side against the Thais in his first competitive match since returning as national coach, after stepping into the breach when predecessor Ivica Osim suffered a serious stroke in November.
Okada’s two friendly matches so far have instilled little confidence that his side is guaranteed to sweep aside the competition and claim a berth in South Africa.
In both games — a dismal 0-0 draw with Chile and a flattering 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina — Japan struggled to find fluency and cohesion, with too many players looking sluggish and unsure of their role in the side.
Okada’s experiment with a midfield diamond against the Bosnians initially worked well, with Yoshito Okubo looking dangerous and elusive behind the front pairing of Naohiro Takahara and Seiichiro Maki.
But as the match wore on and Okubo drifted deeper in search of the ball, a midfield already featuring the creative talents of Yasuhito Endo and Kengo Nakamura began to look cluttered and confused.
An injury to Maki shortly before halftime necessitated a reshuffle, with Okubo moving further forward as Koji Yamase came on to play a more conventional midfield role.
The Yokohama F. Marinos man staked his claim for a permanent place with two goals, and with Maki an injury doubt for Wednesday’s game, Yamase looks set to start against the Thais.
Kashima Antlers’ 19-year-old right back Atsuto Uchida should also keep his place, despite looking nervous as Okada handed him his first two caps against Chile and Bosnia.
It is understandable that a team drawn from a J. League currently in its off-season and playing under a new coach would look slightly out-of-kilter, and in truth, even a disjointed Japan should be enough to make short work of a first qualification group including Thailand, Oman and Bahrain.
Thailand impressed at last summer’s Asian Cup, missing out on the quarterfinals only on goal difference and drawing with eventual champion Iraq along the way.
Bahrain, which failed to clinch a spot in Germany only by losing a playoff with Trinidad and Tobago, scored a first-round win over South Korea at the Asian Cup, and must also be treated with caution.
With two teams going through to the final two qualification groups, it would be a major shock if Japan did not take its place among the 10 teams vying for the four automatic 2010 World Cup berths plus one playoff place against the Oceania qualifier.
But with a stronger field than in 2006 lying in wait if Japan gets there, the final round may not be so forgiving.
The one obvious difference from four years ago is the presence in the Asian confederation of Australia.
Tired of breezing through the Oceania zone notching cricket scores against the likes of American Samoa, only to fall short in do-or-die playoffs against stronger teams, the Australians have joined in search of a more measured campaign.
Australia learned the hard way at the Asian Cup that its new peers are not to be taken lightly, scraping through the first round after losing to Iraq, before going down in a penalty shootout to Japan in the quarterfinals.
But the Australians will be looking to avenge that defeat in Hanoi, and with established stars such as Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell to call on, Japan will be hoping to avoid a repeat clash in the final round.
South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran constitute the traditional Asian powers, but it was Iraq which surprised everyone by winning the Asian Cup and should now emerge as a dangerous dark horse for World Cup qualification.
China is determined to book its ticket to South Africa after an embarrassing failure in 2006, and Uzbekistan also showed in the Asian Cup that it will be a force to be reckoned with.
A relatively gentle start to World Cup qualifying should give Okada some breathing space to get his team up and running, but with stronger rivals waiting further down the line, the new coach’s period of grace will not last forever.