National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni feels 2013 will be a make-or break year for his team and hopes the Confederations Cup will serve as a springboard for the Asian champions to become a true world-class force by Brazil 2014.
“In 2013, the first thing is to qualify for the World Cup — in Jordan, too. Then we can begin preparing for the finals right away,” Zaccheroni said in a New Year’s round table interview with the Tokyo Sportswriters Club. “We won’t have a whole lot of time in 2014 so we need to make the most of 2013.
“The Confederations Cup will be tough, and that’s exactly the way I want it. After that, I’ve asked the JFA for another European tour when I hope we can keep playing the best teams.”
“The Confederations Cup will be incredibly competitive, with only quality teams in the tournament. We must use the competition as a building block for 2014,” he continued.
“At the Confederations Cup, I can’t emphasize how important it will be to find out what we need to work on over the year leading up to the World Cup.”
Zaccheroni followed up an Asian Cup-winning year in 2011 with another fruitful campaign in 2012, taking his team to the brink of qualification for the World Cup with a near-perfect record in the final round.
Japan has a sizeable lead in Group B of the Asian final qualifiers, with 13 points from five matches — eight points ahead of Australia and Iraq. A win in Jordan on March 26 will punch Japan’s ticket to Brazil, where it would make its fifth consecutive World Cup appearance.
In October, Zaccheroni’s side toured Europe for the first time when it took on former World Cup-winners Brazil and France. Japan produced a 1-0 victory over France, its first against Les Bleus, but was thrashed 4-0 by Brazil — the team’s worst defeat under Zaccheroni.
Zaccheroni, however, said the loss to Brazil meant more than the win over France because of the way Japan took the fight to the five-time world champions. Ahead of what will be his third full year in charge of the Blue Samurai, the Italian also appears to be happy with the overall progress of his team.
“I can’t spot one bad thing. The team has done everything I’ve asked for and then some,” he said.
“On our trip to Europe in October, I thought we learned more about ourselves in the Brazil game than the France game. I was pleased with our mental approach against Brazil. We were brave against Brazil, I thought.”
“Japan’s biggest strength is speed, which will prove to be effective against big, physical sides. We need to move the ball faster, learn to shake off marking faster, make faster decisions,” he continued.
“We have to play like a chameleon, to be able to adjust to any given situation. We must be able to play to our strengths even against the strongest of opponents.
“We will never plan to play anyone on the counterattack. We could end up playing someone off the break because the game happens to unfold that way, but it will not be our style of choice.”
Zaccheroni is so confident in the group of players he has at his disposal that he expects to make few, if any, changes to a lineup that has essentially looked the same since Japan lifted a record fourth Asian Cup in January 2011 in Qatar.
Zaccheroni believes the depth of Japan’s squad is one of the team’s biggest assets, something that allows him to overcome any absences.
“Based on the principles I have, I don’t want to tinker with the backbone of the team that runs from the keeper through the midfield to the central striker,” the former Juventus, Milan and Inter boss said. “Unless I have to because of injuries, most of my substitutions will be on the wings. I’ve always been that way even in Italy, not just with Japan.
“I think our squad can be split into three groups — the first team, a group I’d describe as their ‘stand-ins’ and the rest of the subs. This year, we saw more players step up who have added depth to the squad. When we had some injuries to the first team, the stand-ins more than showed they can do the job.
“It’s not in my nature to name names, but we have players who we know can fill in any time for the likes of (Maya) Yoshida, (Yuto) Nagatomo, (Keisuke) Honda, (Tadanari) Lee and (Shinji) Kagawa.”