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Impressive victory puts Japan in good shape for Jordan clash

by Andrew Mckirdy

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni will take nothing for granted in Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Jordan, but if Japan can build on last weekend’s impressive 3-0 win over Oman, three more points should follow.

Japan faces Jordan at Saitama Stadium having opened the final round of qualifiers last Sunday night with one of its best performances of the past 12 months. Precise passing and constant movement dissected Oman’s defense almost at will, and although the visitors put up so little resistance that manager Paul Le Guen declared afterward that his team “didn’t exist,” Zaccheroni will be heartened by how his own side handled the occasion.

Anything less than a win at home against one of the weakest teams in the group would have been a serious setback, and Japan’s record against opponents with no desire to attack has not always made for happy reading. An early goal from Keisuke Honda helped settle the nerves, however, and it was not the only important contribution the CSKA Moscow midfielder made over the 90 minutes.

Sunday’s game was Honda’s first appearance of the current campaign, and his influence was immediately noticeable. Kengo Nakamura deputized admirably in the position behind the main striker during the third-round qualifying matches, but Honda’s physical presence and sheer force added a new dimension to Japan’s forward line that Oman simply could not deal with.

Honda’s return also helped those around him, with Shinji Kagawa in particular benefiting on the left of the attack. The Manchester United-bound star has not always looked comfortable as the creative focal point of the national team, but with Honda proving such a handful occupying the opposing defenders, Kagawa was free to exploit the gaps and link up with the outstanding Yuto Nagatomo.

The success of that left-wing partnership, however, highlighted Japan’s relative weakness on the opposite flank. Atsuto Uchida was often wasteful breaking out of defense, while Shinji Okazaki let several chances go begging before he finally hit the target in the 54th minute. It would be a major surprise if Zaccheroni was to drop either player for Friday’s game, but the fact that Hiroki Sakai and Hiroshi Kiyotake replaced the pair as substitutes hints at the possible evolution of the starting lineup over the course of the campaign.

For the time being, however, experience is a commodity valued highly by Zaccheroni, and the cast-iron insurance provided by Makoto Hasebe was a reminder why. The captain’s knowhow and poise allowed Japan to dominate the crucial central midfield area, and it will take a tenacious, well-drilled effort from Jordan to prevent him from doing so again on Friday.

There was also encouragement further up the pitch, with Ryoichi Maeda staking a claim to establish himself as Zaccheroni’s first-choice striker. The manager has never truly settled on one player despite giving opportunities to each of Maeda, Tadanari Lee, Mike Havenaar and Takayuki Morimoto, but after a hard-working display that yielded a goal, the Jubilo Iwata man did his chances no harm.

Of course with Sunday’s win coming against a side looking every inch the world’s 92nd-ranked team, Japan cannot afford to get carried away on the back of one impressive performance.

But if Zaccheroni’s men can pick up another three points on Friday and get a result against Australia on June 12, it will go a long way toward booking an early place in Brazil.