No sooner than one soccer year ends, another one begins.
And if national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni can harness the potential his players showed over the second half of 2010, there is no reason why Japan should not usher in 2011 with victory in the Asian Cup in Qatar over the coming weeks.
Japan kicks off its campaign in the Jan. 7-29 continental championship against Jordan on Sunday, before taking on Syria the following Thursday and rounding off the group stage against Saudi Arabia four days later. Zaccheroni targeted a top-three finish upon taking the job in late August, and on recent form he is well placed to achieve that goal.
The Italian began his tenure in style, beating a full-strength Argentina 1-0 in October before gaining a measure of revenge for two previous defeats to South Korea with a 0-0 draw in Seoul. A diet of two friendlies three months before the event is hardly ideal preparation, but Zaccheroni has inherited a team that is organically growing into a formidable unit.
Circumstances dictated that predecessor Takeshi Okada had to make safety his priority at last summer’s World Cup, but caretaker Hiromi Hara pointed Zaccheroni in the right direction by restoring Japan’s attacking mentality during his two games warming the manager’s seat in September.
Hara also gave center stage to a younger generation, and the hint has not fallen on deaf ears. Zaccheroni has named a 23-man squad with World Cup experience at its core, but a liberal smattering of fresh faces throughout suggests the manager is keen to mine the rich seam of talent currently lighting up the Japanese game.
The manager has also been helped by compliant European clubs releasing overseas players, and although injuries have deprived him of first-choice center backs Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, as well as striker Takayuki Morimoto, there is no shortage of quality at his disposal.
The charge will again be led by World Cup hero Keisuke Honda, who will be looking to further enhance his reputation as an emerging world-class player, and attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who has exploded onto the European scene since joining Borussia Dortmund at the start of the season.
Japan will, however, have competition. It might be asking too much of Iraq to defend the title it won in Southeast Asia in 2007, but as always the regional heavyweights of South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have a big say in the destination of the trophy.
Having been awarded the 2022 World Cup, all eyes will also be on host Qatar. Staging the Asian Cup cannot compare to the logistics of organizing the world’s premier tournament, but the tiny Gulf state does have an opportunity to nip some early misconceptions in the bud — if not fears over the searing June temperatures.
For Zaccheroni and Japan, however, that is of little concern. The Italian will be thankful of the tournament experience so early in his first job as an international manager, and the opportunity is there to mark a new beginning with concrete success.
The end of the month will bring more answers. For now, the future looks bright.