Japan will face tougher tests over the year ahead than next Wednesday’s season-opening friendly against Latvia, but with World Cup qualification virtually secured more than 16 months before the tournament begins, manager Alberto Zaccheroni will be keen to start building momentum on the road to Brazil.
Japan heads into 2013 with a place at a fifth successive World Cup as good as in the bag, having steered a safe course through the previous 12 months to sit top of Group B a full eight points clear of its nearest rivals. Zaccheroni’s side can seal the deal in its next qualifier away to Jordan on March 26, but the manager will already be planning his wider strategy as he looks to turn Japan into a genuine contender for a place in the quarterfinals or beyond.
First up is the Latvians’ visit to Kobe, with Zaccheroni expected to name a full-strength squad when he announces his selection on Thursday. Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson would no doubt prefer to see Shinji Kagawa excluded from that list with the attacking midfielder having only recently returned from injury, but time is at a premium on international get-togethers and Zaccheroni will not want to waste a single opportunity to get his message across.
With the J. League currently in its offseason and Japan’s numerous German-based players still feeling their way back from the Bundesliga winter break, the manager will not be expecting miracles in next Wednesday’s encounter. Instead he will be looking to build the intensity as the year progresses, with June’s Confederations Cup in Brazil offering the perfect staging post to gauge his team’s standing.
Zaccheroni could hardly have hoped for a higher quality of first-round group opposition than the host nation, Italy and Mexico, with the value of last autumn’s friendlies against France and Brazil still fresh in the manager’s memory. Japan may have been handed a reminder of its place in the world order with a 4-0 thrashing by Brazil in Poland, but there could be no better motivation than the chance to turn the tables when the two teams meet again in Brasilia on June 15.
Latvia will provide a more modest test next Wednesday, but the occasion still provides the ideal platform for fringe players to lodge themselves firmly in the manager’s thinking for the year ahead. It remains to be seen if Zaccheroni will include any new faces in his squad on Thursday, but several of last year’s London Olympic team have already made the step up and the likes of Kensuke Nagai, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara will be looking to do the same in 2013.
With the pressure of qualifying for the World Cup almost lifted, Zaccheroni has the luxury of being able to plan for the tournament in a way that few other managers elsewhere in the world can. Japan’s own efficiency has of course contributed to putting it one step away from punching its ticket before anyone else for the second tournament running, but the fact that Asian qualifying is the first to finish puts teams from the region in a privileged position.
Settling matters early can also be a double-edged sword, however, and Japan struggled to find quality friendly opposition after booking its place at South Africa 2010 with the rest of the world too busy to make the trip. Zaccheroni must make sure he strikes the right balance for his team to fulfill its potential at the time when it matters most, and next week’s game is a small but nevertheless important part of that process.
The countdown to Brazil starts now.