GEORGE, South Africa — “Stupid” may seem unnecessarily harsh, but former Japan boss Philippe Troussier appears to have hit the nail on the head in recently branding current national team coach Takeshi Okada “confused.”
Despite having repeated ad nauseam that he has no intention of changing the team’s style or his somewhat fanciful goal of steering Japan to the World Cup semifinals, Okada has spent the bulk of the build-up to the tournament in South Africa juggling his squad and switching formations, leaving his players and the media equally baffled.
Yet even after all his tinkering, the bespectacled 53-year-old coach still appears no closer to finding the right blend of defensive nous and attacking bite ahead of Japan’s crunch Group E opener against Cameroon in Bloemfontein on Monday.
The Blue Samurai suffered four defeats in succession to Serbia, South Korea, England and the Cote d’Ivoire with just one goal scored before playing out a 0-0 draw in a hastily arranged training match against Zimbabwe here on Thursday.
In the past few weeks, Okada, who claimed he essentially offered to resign after the 2-0 defeat to South Korea last month only to make a bizarre about turn 24 hours later and say he was only “joking,” has dropped several tried and trusted players.
Veteran Seigo Narazaki appears to have lost the goalkeeper’s shirt to the relatively inexperienced Eiji Kawashima, former Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura has been stewing on the sidelines and wing-back Atsuto Uchida has been kept out of the team by the more versatile Yasuyuki Konno.
But the biggest casualty could yet be Shimizu S-Pulse striker Shinji Okazaki, who looked certain to start in South Africa having scored more international goals in 2009 than any other player in the world.
If Thursday’s formation against Zimbabwe is any indicator, Okazaki could start on the bench against Cameroon with CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda playing as a lone striker for the first time in a competitive match.
“That is the way competition for places is and I think it is healthy,” captain Makoto Hasebe said. “But Okazaki has been a key player for us and it is not as if he won’t get another chance.”
Japan Football Association technical director Hiromi Hara said, “Things have changed as far as selection is concerned and the team has been playing a different style to last year, but it is difficult to comment until we see the result of these changes in the (World Cup) games.
“The coach may still be thinking about how to play when the tournament gets under way. He doesn’t show it but he is obviously feeling a great deal of pressure.”
If Okada is feeling the heat, his players certainly were not showing any signs of nerves after they wrapped up their preparations on Thursday.
“Our problem scoring goals is an issue that has needed addressing for quite some time and it is something we are acutely aware of,” Hasebe said.
“But I think we have a real chance of beating Cameroon as they are not at their best. It won’t be easy, of course, but the main thing is that we are all in top condition.”
Nakamura, however, felt the change in the team’s tactics would make it tough for him to come off the bench and add pressure to Japan’s attack against Cameroon.