Alberto Zaccheroni is only taking his first steps as national team manager, but already he has hit his stride.
The Italian got his reign off to the perfect start last Friday as Japan recorded its first ever win over Argentina, before reclaiming a measure of pride from two defeats to South Korea earlier this year with a rugged 0-0 draw away to its Asian rival on Tuesday.
Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and their illustrious teammates were comprehensively eclipsed by a slick Japan in Saitama, and another promising display in Seoul suggests Zaccheroni is in line to reap a significant harvest over the months and years to come.
The seeds, of course, were planted long ago. Argentina manager Sergio Batista noted that Japan “has been very well prepared over a long period of time,” and Zaccheroni does indeed owe a debt of gratitude to predecessor Takeshi Okada for laying such a solid foundation.
But while the new manager inherits a team with World Cup experience, its best years should be still to come. Zaccheroni has been tasked with taking a talented group of players to a higher level, and evidence so far suggests his message is sinking in quickly.
No goals conceded over two games was an impressive feat for a team playing without its two first-choice central defenders, and the manner in which Japan closed out the win over Argentina drew special praise from a manager who has spent his entire career in the pragmatic environment of Italian soccer.
Not that Zaccheroni deserves to be cast as a conservative roundhead, however. His starting formation against a full-strength Argentina was as positive as they come, and not even the presence of Messi, Tevez and Diego Milito could persuade him to sacrifice one of three attacking midfielders for a defensive shield.
But when Japan’s midfield did begin to falter against the Koreans, Zaccheroni took action. Hajime Hosogai’s appearance alongside Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo steadied the ship and gave Japan the platform to attack, and it is that kind of tactical versatility that the JFA had in mind when targeting an experienced head like Zaccheroni.
That is not to say everything the Italian touched turned to gold. Striker Ryoichi Maeda had a frustrating night against the Koreans after terrorizing Argentina in a late cameo, and goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa did not look especially solid filling in for the injured Eiji Kawashima.
But when a new manager delivers a win over Argentina at the first time of asking, there can be few complaints. The fact that Japan was even playing the South Americans was a triumph in itself, and it must be hoped that such prestige friendlies become the norm rather than the exception after years of uninspiring opposition.
The Zaccheroni era, then, is well and truly under way. The only shame now is that we will have to wait until 2011 — and the Asian Cup — to see what happens next.