Former national team manager Philippe Troussier has warned Japan not to sit back and play for the single point it needs to secure a place at a fifth straight World Cup in next Tuesday’s qualifier against Australia.
Japan takes on the Socceroos at Saitama Stadium knowing that a draw will be enough to wrap up a berth at next year’s tournament in Brazil, with a final qualifying fixture away to Iraq on June 11 providing a safety net should Alberto Zaccheroni’s side fail to get the job done next week.
But Troussier, who led Japan to the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup on home soil during his four-year spell in charge, believes it would be a mistake to head into the match with a defensive mind set, instead urging his former team to seize the initiative and lock up qualification with a flourish.
“If you are a manager, you can’t go into a match thinking that 0-0 is OK,” Troussier said during a promotional visit to Tokyo earlier this week. “You have to take on the challenge and try to win if you are at home. You have to try to create chances to score, and if the other team scores first then you have to be confident and try to turn it around.
“If there isn’t much time left and neither team is winning, then it’s OK for Japan to try to hold on for a draw. If you go for a goal at that stage then you run the risk of being hit on the counterattack.”
Japan leads Group B on 13 points with Jordan six points behind in second, with Australia currently one point further back with a game in hand in the third-place playoff position. Japan’s overwhelmingly superior goal difference means it would take a monumental meltdown to miss out on qualification, but Troussier refuses to rule out any eventuality until the job has been mathematically completed.
“There is big pressure on them to get that point,” said the Frenchman, who currently manages Chinese side Shenzhen Ruby. “This game is a special case. It’s like a tennis player needing just a point more to win a match. If you become too aware of it then it affects you mentally.
“It will be a difficult match because Australia need the points and they will have a strong desire to win. There have been many examples of teams who have not been able to win because the pressure on them has been too great. In last year’s Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea, Bayern were at home and everyone thought they would win, but they couldn’t get over the pressure. I don’t want the same accident to happen to Japan.”
Troussier led Japan to the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time in 2002, with the team matching the achievement eight years later in South Africa before losing on penalties to Paraguay. Hopes are high that Zaccheroni can break new ground by reaching the quarterfinals next summer, and Troussier believes the Italian has enough talent at his disposal to make an impression.
“Japan have an excellent team,” he said. “In my opinion they are now among the top 15 teams in the world. The players have a lot of quality, and now more and more of them are playing overseas and having more success at clubs in Europe. I think they are currently the strongest team in Asia.
“I’m not surprised at the strides the Japanese team has made. Now European countries are paying attention to Japan’s quality, and that makes me very happy.”
But while Troussier pays tribute to Japan’s progress, the 58-year-old also believes changes to the rules of the game have had a beneficial effect.
“When I was national team manager, Japanese players already had great technique and passing skills,” he said. “But at that time the global image of the Japanese team was that the players were naive, and that they could be pushed around physically. Now, with changes to the FIFA rules taking away a lot of the physical aspect of the game, Japan’s technical style has prospered.”
Japan will get a first-hand preview of what awaits in Brazil next summer when the Asian champions take part in the Confederations Cup from June 15-30, with the host nation, Italy and Mexico providing formidable first-round opposition. Troussier led Japan to the final of the 2001 edition only to lose 1-0 to his native France, and the former Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa and Marseille manager believes the tournament has a valuable role to play.
“What happens in the Confederations Cup can have an influence on the World Cup after it,” he said. “If you do well you can carry the momentum on to the World Cup. Japan have to play Brazil and Italy and they are strong teams, but you have to take them on to see where you currently are. Even if Japan lose it will be a good lesson ahead of the World Cup.”