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Strength in depth gives Japan chance to clinch World Cup place

by Andrew Mckirdy

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni will be without two of his most important players when Japan attempts to book its ticket to the 2014 World Cup against Jordan next Tuesday, but the Italian still has enough quality in reserve to get the job done.

Japan can make sure of its place at a fifth consecutive finals with a win in Amman, with a draw also enough if group rivals Australia and Oman share the spoils in their match earlier the same day. Zaccheroni’s side will have to do without left back Yuto Nagatomo and attacking talisman Keisuke Honda, however, with a knee injury ruling out the former and the latter described by his club, CSKA Moscow, as being “unwell.”

Having deployed a variety of personnel throughout the course of the campaign, though, Zaccheroni will surely feel confident in his options.

Honda’s absence through injury for the first round of qualifiers initially caused a headache with neither Yosuke Kashiwagi nor Makoto Hasebe proving an adequate replacement, before Kengo Nakamura stepped in to make the central attacking midfield deputy role his own. The thought of moving Shinji Kagawa across from his usual position on the left may be tempting, but with the opportunity to become the first team to qualify for the second World Cup running, the manager is unlikely to experiment.

That makes Nakamura a likely starter and the always-reliable Yuichi Komano the obvious choice to replace Nagatomo, but if everything goes according to plan against Jordan, there will be plenty of time to explore new possibilities over the year ahead. Zaccheroni is, of course, unlikely to instigate drastic reform with his team playing so well, but flaws still remain and last October’s 4-0 friendly defeat to Brazil gave an insight into his plans to deal with them.

The manager’s search for a striker of genuine prolific quality has fallen on familiar barren ground, with neither Ryoichi Maeda, Mike Havenaar nor Tadanari Lee looking capable of making the difference against top-class opposition. Zaccheroni’s solution against Brazil was to play Honda at the point of the attack, but although the 26-year-old’s power and technique make him a good fit for the role, his talents are arguably better utilized elsewhere.

Previous manager Takeshi Okada made it clear where he stood on the matter when he fielded Honda up front for every one of Japan’s games at the 2010 World Cup, and where Zaccheroni chooses to use his star player in Brazil could ultimately be the decision that comes to define his tenure.

The time for adjustments will come after qualification has been achieved, however, and there is no guarantee that the Jordanians will allow that to happen on Tuesday. Japan’s 6-0 victory over the same opponent last June may suggest another whitewash, but Middle Eastern teams have often proved tough nuts to crack on home soil.

Japan’s progress through the qualifiers has been so smooth that it can become easy to undervalue the achievement, but a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance would be a truly impressive feat for a nation that had previously failed to manage even one.

That is testament to the progress the Japanese game has made, but with higher standards come higher expectations, and simply making up the numbers in Brazil is not an acceptable option.

Qualification is only the beginning.