SAITAMA – National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni admits the importance of making a strong start to the final round of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup was weighing on his players’ mind ahead of Sunday’s 3-0 win over Oman.
Japan laid down an impressive marker in its bid to reach a fifth successive World Cup in front of a Saitama Stadium-record crowd of 63,551, with star player Keisuke Honda breaking the deadlock after 11 minutes before Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki made the game safe early in the second half.
But Zaccheroni revealed his concern over his players’ frame of mind after the match, with the pressure to open the five-team final stage with nothing less than three points taking a heavy mental toll.
“The players were very concentrated before the match, but they had some worries about what would happen if they lost this first game,” said the Italian. “Maybe they were too concentrated on the match. I saw this even at lunch. After lunch we would usually have a conversation, but they weren’t talking to each other after they had finished eating. That’s when I knew they were nervous.
“The players were aware of the importance of this first match but they handled it very well. We were in control throughout. For us, we have a unified team concept and all the players share the same way of thinking.”
Oman made its intention to sit back and frustrate Japan clear from the beginning, with the visitors mustering only one shot over the entire 90 minutes. Faced with such a defensive bulwark, Zaccheroni was pleased that his players were able to find a way through.
“Oman wasn’t giving us much room to pass the ball, but our players were still able to find that space,” he said. “That was a real positive from tonight. Ultimately, if you look at the score and the number of shots you might think that it was easy for us, but that wasn’t the case. At the end of the last round of qualifiers Oman didn’t give many goals away, and it was difficult to break them down.”
Japan now takes on Jordan in Saitama on Friday before traveling to Brisbane to face Australia on June 12. Jordan and Iraq drew 1-1 in Sunday’s other Group B game, giving Japan an early advantage in the race to claim one of the two automatic qualification slots.
“It was important for us to get three points, but going forward we need to take advantage of this win,” said Zaccheroni. “We need to analyze why we won tonight and use that in our next game. I’ve been in football for a long time, and I always keep pushing my teams to keep growing. That’s what we have to do now.”
Oman had no answer for Japan’s relentless attacking, and visiting manager Paul Le Guen could only admire the home side’s talent and temperament.
“I think they are supposed to be the best team in the group,” said the Frenchman, who was in charge of the Cameroon side that lost 1-0 to Japan at the 2010 World Cup. “They are the favorites. Look at the players who are in this team — they are gifted, they are talented and they are able to play with big intensity. Their intensity was too high for us tonight. They were better than us technically, physically, and their rhythm was too high for us.”
Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi agreed.
“I think we have been punished from the first minute, and you can see the experience of the players made a difference,” said the Wigan Athletic player. “We had some new players playing for the first time for the national team, and we were against a big crowd and, I guess, a big team.”