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Home comforts in short supply as Japan aims for final round

by Andrew Mckirdy

Tajikistan and North Korea might not be the strongest of opponents, but conditions away from home will certainly make Japan’s bid to secure an early place in the final round of World Cup qualifiers difficult over the coming week.

Japan takes on Tajikistan in Dushanbe on Friday before traveling to play in Pyongyang four days later, with a win in the first fixture coupled with a loss for the North Koreans against Uzbekistan later the same day enough to put Alberto Zaccheroni’s side through with two games to spare.

Japan’s 8-0 mauling of the Tajiks last month in Osaka exposed the Central Asians’ inability to compete with the continent’s best, but Friday’s game will take place on anything but a level playing field.

Tajikistan manager Alimzhon Rafikov warned that the pitch at Dushanbe Central Stadium would be a far cry from the pristine surface on which Japan lacerated his team at Nagai Stadium, and a repeat of that display of precision passing and intricate technique looks highly unlikely on what captain Makoto Hasebe described Tuesday as “basically dirt.”

The pitch in Pyongyang has also been an issue in the buildup to next week’s game, with the North Koreans switching the match from the natural turf of Yanggakdo Stadium to the artificial surface of Kim Il Sung Stadium on the grounds that the former was unsuitable for cold weather.

Both matches will be played during the afternoon due to power-supply concerns, and with basic training facilities and partisan crowds further complicating matters, the environment facing Zaccheroni’s men will be as far removed from what they are accustomed to in the J. League and Europe as could possibly be imagined.

Fortunately for the manager, he has a squad professional enough to cope with all manner of situations, and experienced enough to have seen a good deal of them before. Asian qualifiers have taken Japan to some far-flung places in the past, and Zaccheroni will be looking to veterans like Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo to keep things on an even keel and ensure that everything runs by the book.

Japan’s first visit to Pyongyang since 1989 will certainly be more than just another game, however, and given the political sensitivity of the fixture, it is anyone’s guess what awaits there. But characters are often forged in the most hostile of atmospheres, and newcomers such as Hiroshi Kiyotake, Mike Havenaar and Genki Haraguchi will surely benefit from the experience if the team comes away with the job professionally done.

The 194-cm Havenaar could be an important figure over the coming week if poor pitches render Japan’s passing game ineffective, and his two headed goals in the home win over Tajikistan will surely be at the forefront of Zaccheroni’s mind if the same opponents prove harder to break down this time around.

Ryoichi Maeda has returned to provide further competition with Tadanari Lee up front, and the manager again has the quality and variety at his disposal to complete the task with the minimum of fuss.

There are many factors for Zaccheroni and his players to contend with, but concentrating on anything other than their own game would be a dangerous mistake. If all goes according to plan, the next step toward another World Cup appearance is there for the taking.