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Japan not looking past Australia with qualification in sight

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni has urged his players to stand up and be counted and clinch World Cup qualification on home soil for the first time against Australia on Tuesday night.

Japan needs just a point from its Group B encounter with the Socceroos to book its place at a fifth straight World Cup, with Saitama Stadium promising to be a more welcoming venue than the Malaysian, Thai and Uzbek arenas that have witnessed qualification in the past.

Japan still has another opportunity to seal the deal against Iraq in Doha on June 11 should Australia take all three points on Tuesday, but Zaccheroni is determined to wrap things up quickly after blowing one chance already in March’s 2-1 defeat to Jordan.

“We are all aware how important this match is,” Zaccheroni said on Monday. “We want to be in the best condition that we possibly can, physically, technically, and mentally, and we have prepared well for the game.

“We know that Australia are a good team as we have played them twice already since I have been manager, and we have a lot of respect for them. I have been with this team for three years now, and we want to get the job done. All I can promise is that we will give our all tomorrow.”

Japan clinched qualification for the 2010 World Cup with a 1-0 win away to Uzbekistan, with Shinji Okazaki making the difference with a diving header at Tashkent’s Pakhtakor Stadium. Okazaki arrived in Saitama on Monday along with Stuttgart teammate Gotoku Sakai and CSKA Moscow forward Keisuke Honda, with all three having appeared in cup finals at the weekend, and Okazaki is eager to reprise the match-winning role he played four years ago.

“I didn’t really think of that as my goal as much as a goal for the team, but I’m glad I scored it,” the 27-year-old said. “The team won because of that goal, so hopefully I can do the same again this time.

“I welcome the responsibility that comes with playing. As a forward, working hard looking for goals for the full 90 minutes, it means that if I score then I have done my job. That’s the mentality of a forward and I want to embrace that.”

Japan heads into the match having suffered the first consecutive defeats of Zaccheroni’s tenure, with the March reverse in Amman being followed up last Thursday with a 2-0 friendly loss to Bulgaria. Japan’s vastly superior goal difference and six-point cushion at the top of Group B make qualification practically a formality, but Australia captain Lucas Neill is hoping to exploit any advantage the visitors can find.

“It’s true that the Japanese team have lost two games in a row, so we are hoping that they won’t be as confident as they can be,” said the former Blackburn Rovers defender, who is currently without a club. “But like I said, in front of a very strong crowd that will drive them on, I’m sure they will be very much up for this game because they are always good games.

“Having said that, Japan has all but qualified for the World Cup already, so maybe there isn’t as much pressure on them. Mathematically they’re not through, but they’re at the stage where they’re there or thereabouts.”

Okazaki believes recent results can work to Japan’s advantage.

“There is always pressure when you play for the national team,” he said. “If you lose then you have to win the next game. We want to raise our standing in the world, and although our mentality doesn’t change regardless of whether we win or lose, if we lose we really want to win and give people something to smile about.”

Australia is currently outside the automatic qualification spots a point behind second-place Jordan, but with a game still in hand on the top two teams. The Socceroos have won only one game so far having played three times away to western Asian opposition, but with two home fixtures rounding off the qualifying program, manager Holger Osieck is looking for a strong finish.

“Tomorrow is the first game of the final part of our qualification campaign, and we start with a road game against Japan, who have done pretty well so far in qualifying,” said the German. “So I expect a very interesting and intense match tomorrow, and of course it’s very important for us to get a positive score here in order to be ready for the rest of our campaign with two games that will be played in Australia.”