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Zaccheroni keeps focus as Japan eyes early berth

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni insists he will not be tempted to experiment with his starting lineup over the remainder of Japan’s World Cup qualifying program despite all but locking up a place in Brazil with a 1-0 win over Iraq on Tuesday.

Ryoichi Maeda’s 25th-minute goal was enough to clinch a hard-fought victory over a spirited Iraqi side at Saitama Stadium, giving Japan 10 points from four games and a six-point cushion at the top of Group B. Jordan stunned Australia 2-1 later Tuesday to become the first side other than Japan to record a win in the five-team section, but Zaccheroni has no intention of allowing himself to be distracted even if his team secures its place at a fifth consecutive World Cup with room to spare.

“The big thing is to qualify as soon as possible,” said the Italian. “Of course I’m always looking for new players, but this team has grown together and I’m very glad of the way they’ve done that.

“This team has quality and it would be very hard to find better players than these, provided they are in good condition.”

One player unavailable to Zaccheroni on Tuesday, however, was attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa. The Manchester United star hurt his lower back in training on Monday, and although the injury is not considered serious, Zaccheroni was taking no chances.

“He got hurt in a mini-game yesterday,” the manager said. “I waited until this afternoon before I made my final decision. He is better today than he was yesterday but I couldn’t use him if he wasn’t going to be 100 percent.”

Iraq’s hard running and positive attitude made life difficult for Japan, with goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima bailing out the home side on a number of occasions. Japan scored nine goals without reply at the same stadium in its opening two games of the final round against Oman and Jordan in June, but Zaccheroni acknowledged that Iraq was made of sterner stuff.

“It was a very hard game,” he said. “Iraq covered the pitch very well and closed down our central midfielders. They attacked in numbers down the wings, and they left no space for us when they defended.

“If we had managed to score a second goal then the game might have been easier for us, but it’s not as if we didn’t try. In the end I would say we had about 65 percent of the possession.”

Iraq manager Zico was unable to make a winning return to Saitama having been in charge of Japan from 2002 to 2006, but the Brazilian was happy with his current team’s performance.

“My players worked hard and created chances, and it was a pity we couldn’t score,” he said. “We gave away the goal from a simple error where we failed to spot the danger, but I am very satisfied with my players.

“We took risks and went with players who had never played together before. But it’s more meaningful to test young players in a big game than to do it in a friendly.”