Alberto Zaccheroni talked of Japan’s “potential” when he was unveiled as national team manager last Tuesday, and the Italian’s first glimpse of his new charges can only have reinforced that impression.
Japan has chalked up friendly wins against Paraguay and Guatemala over the past week in a first return to action since the World Cup, with JFA technical director Hiromi Hara filling in for Zaccheroni while the visa-less former AC Milan manager watched from the stands. Hara’s intention was to give the new man food for thought, and with 20 players on show over the two games there was plenty for him to digest.
A relatively experienced lineup beat Paraguay 1-0 on Saturday before giving way to a more experimental selection for Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Guatemala. Zaccheroni will of course make his own choices once he gets his bearings, but Hara has done a good job in steering him in the right direction.
The two games painted a distinct picture of Japan as a team on the rise. The World Cup players who impressed most in Yokohama and Osaka were generally those with their best years in front of them, and Zaccheroni will be heartened to find that Keisuke Honda, Yuto Nagatomo and Eiji Kawashima are improving all the time.
Then there is Shinji Kagawa, who missed out on a place in South Africa but now looks set to play a key role in the new era. Much depends on how the 21-year-old’s move to Borussia Dortmund pans out, but his match-winning performance against Paraguay was a positive sign and it was noteworthy that Kagawa was one of only five players to start both matches.
Takayuki Morimoto was another, but the Catania striker will reflect on missed chances as well as the two goals he plundered against Guatemala. A succession of managers have been forced to deal with Japan’s weakness in producing quality center-forwards, and Zaccheroni cannot expect to have it any easier.
Skillful midfielders and wingers are a different matter, however, and Japan’s traditional area of strength has been bolstered further over the past week. Urawa Reds’ Hajime Hosogai did not look out of his depth when he made his debut against Paraguay, while Cerezo Osaka’s Takashi Inui arguably outshone his former teammate Kagawa against Guatemala.
There was perhaps less to admire in defense, and conceding a goal against Guatemala only minutes after scoring was sloppy considering that Paraguay almost did the same three days earlier. Fresh blood will be needed at the back somewhere along the line, but as an Italian, Zaccheroni is hardly likely to shrink from the challenge.
After watching from the sidelines, he must now be desperate to get started. Zaccheroni’s introduction to Japan has been a successful one, and for that Hara deserves his share of credit. The former Urawa manager came under fire for taking too long to find a replacement for Takeshi Okada, but he has responded with good humor and understated efficiency and steps down as caretaker with a 100 percent record.
Zaccheroni will hope for a similar flying start when he takes the reins against Argentina next month. Until then, he has plenty to get his teeth into.