Alberto Zaccheroni’s first year as national team manager could hardly have been more successful, but that does not mean the Italian can expect to stroll through Japan’s opening World Cup qualifying fixtures starting this week.
Japan begins its bid to reach the finals for a fifth successive tournament against North Korea in Saitama on Friday or Saturday — depending on typhoon weather reports — before traveling to Tashkent to face Uzbekistan on Sept. 6. Punishment for fielding an ineligible player means Tajikistan takes Syria’s place in the four-team group, but even with two sides making it past the round-robin stage to the final qualifying round, Zaccheroni’s Asian champions cannot take anything for granted.
The third-round stage at which Japan enters the fray usually throws up one rival worthy of the name, but this time two serious contenders have been drawn from the pot. North Korea’s 7-0 thrashing by Portugal at last year’s World Cup should not detract from the hermit nation’s achievement of reaching South Africa in the first place, while Uzbekistan was an Asian Cup semifinalist as recently as January this year.
Japanese defenders will need no introduction to North Korean striker Chong Tese after his 4½ years in the J. League with Kawasaki Frontale, while midfielder Ryang Yong Gi has been in exceptional form this season for Vegalta Sendai. Uzbekistan boasts former Asian player of the year Server Djeparov among its ranks, and the number of his countrymen plying their trade in the strong Russian League shows why the Central Asian nation has long been regarded as the continent’s dark horse.
For Japan, then, the importance of making a strong start cannot be understated. Previous manager Takeshi Okada spent the same stage of the 2010 qualifying process striving to make up lost ground after a surprise early defeat to Bahrain, and with bigger sharks lurking this time around there will be far less margin for error.
Having arrived in Japan last summer with no international experience on his resume, the upcoming series will also be a test for Zaccheroni himself. Winning the Asian Cup in Qatar in January should certainly hold the 58-year-old in good stead, but the size and diversity of the continent brings its own particular challenges, and the defensive outlook of weaker teams can be a frustrating obstacle.
In Zaccheroni’s favor, however, is a squad that is packed with quality, playing well and improving all the time. Keisuke Honda and Kengo Nakamura were ruled out with injuries on Wednesday, but the manager has plenty of options, and with young players like Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi breaking through, competition for places is fiercer than ever.
Such strength in depth is evidence of the rich seam of talent currently running through the Japanese game, and to fall at the first hurdle of World Cup qualification would be an unthinkable setback. Japan has grown so used to taking its place at the top table that the debilitating effects of spending four years in the wilderness have become a distant memory, but the danger is real and a good start is essential.
As Asian champions, however, the upper hand is very much with Japan. If Zaccheroni can begin his second year in charge the same way he blazed through his first, results will surely follow.