National team manager Takeshi Okada is confident his side will be in fighting shape for next week’s World Cup-qualifying showdown with Australia, starting with a sparring match against Finland on Wednesday night.
Japan heads into the friendly against the Europeans at Tokyo’s National Stadium fresh from a dismal 1-0 Asian Cup-qualifying defeat to Bahrain. But with only a week to go before the unbeaten Australians arrive, Okada is keen to get his players quickly attuned to their opponent’s physical style.
“Finland play a very similar pressing game to Australia, so this should be a good simulation for us,” Okada said on Tuesday night.
“We have some players who are trying to get match fit, so this should be a good opportunity for them to get ready for the Australia game.”
Okada confirmed playmaker Yasuhito Endo will start against Finland after missing the Bahrain game, but was less optimistic over the chances of striker Tatsuya Tanaka, who is struggling with a back injury.
“I don’t want to risk Tanaka if it is unnecessary,” Okada said. “If he does play it won’t be for long, but Endo needs to get some match fitness, so he will play. I don’t have many options in midfield, so I will try to use him for as long as possible.”
Australia manager Pim Verbeek on Tuesday announced his squad for next week’s match in Yokohama, naming only one home-based player in his selection.
Okada admitted to not having seen Verbeek’s choices, but received words of encouragement from his opposite number for Tuesday’s game.
Finland manager Stuart Baxter knows the Japanese game well from spells in charge of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe, and believes Okada has his hands full dealing with the weight of the Japanese public’s expectations.
“The problem you have with every country is that the teams that you have had in the past always set the standard for the teams that you have at the moment,” Baxter said.
“Sometimes that puts pressure on the players to achieve a certain level. You have to be a little bit realistic in that we have to look at the experience of the players. Where are they playing? Do we have a Nakata or players playing at that level, and do we have as many as we had before? Maybe given that, the pressure put on this present team is a little bit difficult for them to carry.”
Okada, however, has personally been one of the chief culprits. One of the manager’s first pronouncements after taking the job just over a year ago was that Japan is capable of making the semifinals in South Africa.
But Baxter can understand the logic of Okada’s bold claims, and believes there is nothing wrong with aiming for the stars.
“The problem that you have when you’re the coach, when you say you can get to the semifinal, is that the people in Japan and the people in Finland don’t want to hear the coach saying we’re going to get knocked out in the first round,” he said.
“They want you to inspire and motivate people. As a coach you share your dreams, and they become the dreams of a nation.
“The problem with that is when when you don’t achieve those dreams you look like a fool. You either keep your mouth shut and you look boring and don’t inspire anybody, or you share your dreams and run the risk of being shot down.”