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Old faces need new approach with World Cup looming

by Andrew Mckirdy

National team manager Takeshi Okada has run out of games to assess contenders for his World Cup squad, but the real question now is not so much who he takes to South Africa as how he uses them.

Last week’s friendly against Serbia was Okada’s final chance to run the rule over candidates for his 23-man roster, having fielded 48 players over 14 games since the qualifying program ended last June. But if that suggests a manager mining a rich seam of talent, the reality is somewhat different.

Okada picked a development side for January’s Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen, with an eye more on giving his regulars a rest than opening up competition for places. Normal practice has instead concentrated on a nucleus of trusted lieutenants, with outsiders granted only cameo opportunities to impress.

For all the players Okada has looked at, there are likely to be few if any surprises when he names his squad next month. Last week’s sorry 3-0 capitulation to Serbia was hardly the match to discover a late wild card, and probably served only to reinforce the manager’s commitment to the core he knows so well.

Okada could certainly have been more generous with the opportunities he has allowed newcomers, but in truth his personnel experiments have generally failed to work out this year, with many hopefuls looking clearly out of their depth.

2010 has not been good for Okada’s team, but the manager’s job has been complicated by only being able to call up his Europe-based players — and therefore his first-choice lineup — once in seven games.

Okada lamented the inability of his J. League-only side to compensate against Serbia, but while last week’s starting lineup will not be repeated in South Africa, domestic players will nonetheless make up the bulk of the team. Recent performances make this a serious cause for concern, and it was troubling to see even stalwarts like Seigo Narazaki and Yuji Nakazawa so badly exposed last week.

Okada spoke after that defeat of using a three-man defense if key men are missing at the World Cup, and this was a significant departure. Not only did it signal a shift in tactics, it was also a rare admission that things need to change.

Okada has been bullishly defensive of his team’s gung-ho attacking style throughout his tenure, and has consistently rejected calls to adopt a more pragmatic approach.

After a bruising string of failures, however, he finally appears willing to accept that the team’s shortcomings must be taken into consideration. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if Japan cannot win with style, it can at least try with hard work.

This could involve a greater role for midfield destroyer Junichi Inamoto, or a defender stepping in to provide strength in numbers alongside Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka. Whatever happens, Okada has the variety and experience in his likely squad, and although it is late in the day, the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a more conservative style is there with friendlies against South Korea, England and Cote d’Ivoire still to come.

Next month’s squad announcement will mark the end of the road for some, but it could be just the fresh start Okada’s team needs.