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Asian Cup campaign gathering steam after five-goal salvo

by Andrew Mckirdy

Slowly but surely, Japan’s Asian Cup challenge is taking shape.

After a sluggish opening draw with Jordan and a wild win over Syria, manager Alberto Zaccheroni finally got what he was looking for on Monday with a 5-0 dismantling of Saudi Arabia, earning a quarterfinal against host Qatar and settling many of the jitters from the opening two games.

Where passing and movement had appeared stilted against Jordan and Syria, the wheels had become sufficiently lubricated to slice the Saudis to ribbons. And when the chances came, they were executed with an efficiency that bodes well for the rest of Japan’s campaign.

Shinji Okazaki’s hat trick and Ryoichi Maeda’s two goals were of the highest quality, and the identity of the scorers was not without significance. Maeda has been an enigma at international level despite regularly looking the part with club side Jubilo Iwata, and although he had moments of hesitancy against the Saudis, there was nothing uncertain about his goals.

Okazaki has also had something to prove since losing his starting place just weeks before the World Cup, and his treble was a reminder of the explosive capabilities of a player who scored more international goals than anyone worldwide in 2009.

Hat tricks against Hong Kong and Togo helped Okazaki achieve that feat, and the specter of that 5-0 turkey shoot against the West Africans two years ago raised its head when Japan went three up against the Saudis with less than 20 minutes gone. In both games the opportunity to further punish dejected and disinterested opponents was spurned in favor of a more leisurely tempo, but given the serious knockout business to come, perhaps conserving energy against the Saudis was indeed the wisest move.

Such professionalism would be in keeping with the nature of captain Makoto Hasebe, who is developing into a player of such maturity that it is easy to forget he was handed the armband only two weeks before the World Cup. The Wolfsburg man made himself the starting point for almost every attack against the Saudis, and Japan can only benefit with the player’s 27th birthday on Tuesday marking what should be the beginning of his prime period.

Shinji Kagawa has some time before he reaches that stage of his career, but it remains to be seen if he will make his mark on this Asian Cup. The 21-year-old again failed to dominate in the manner that was expected of him before the tournament, and a goal to set him on his way would not have gone amiss.

Regardless, there is still time for Kagawa to come good, and it is encouraging to see the team improving with every performance. Qatar also has momentum after wins against China and Kuwait, but while the atmosphere on Friday will be a different proposition from the empty stands that greeted Japan against the Saudis, Zaccheroni’s side certainly has the quality to get the job done.

The suspended Atsuto Uchida will be missed, but the squad is hitting its stride at the right time and all but three members have seen playing time already. Given the progress Japan has made so far, it would be a shame to see it end now.