DOHA – Keisuke Honda became the nation’s hero last week after sending Japan through to next year’s World Cup with an injury-time penalty against Australia.
But the CSKA Moscow man may have paid a price as he has been unable to train with the team since the 1-1 draw to Australia at Saitama because of an aggravated right-thigh injury, and whether he plays Tuesday against Iraq in Japan’s last World Cup qualifier appears to be up in the air.
After practice on Sunday evening, Honda had the thigh covered with a huge bag of ice as he gingerly walked off the pitch. The midfielder also continued to give the media the silent treatment, which he has done more often as of late.
According to his coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, Honda, until the Australia game, had not played 90 minutes for club or country since last November.
Joining the squad only the day before the match probably did not help and while the sacrifice helped the team, Honda is now in a fitness race for Saturday’s opening match of the Confederations Cup against Brazil.
Zaccheroni was vague about Honda’s participation on Monday.
“He hasn’t played a whole lot recently so he is in need of some fine-tuning,” Zaccheroni said. “Whatever playing time he can give me, I need to use it wisely.
“I don’t think we’ve played as poorly as some say without Honda. Honda is an important player to us, but we do have people who can step up and fill in.”
With Honda out, the onus once again will fall on Shinji Kagawa, who is expected to plug the gap in the hole. Also out for the Iraq game will be suspended captain Makoto Hasebe, who will pass on the armband to his partner in defensive midfield, Yasuhito Endo.
While Japan is through as comfortable Group B winner, last-place Iraq must win Tuesday to have any chance of qualifying automatically for the World Cup.
After playing Japan, Vladimir Petrovic’s side must travel to Australia for its last match on June 18.
“This is the last chance for Iraq to qualify for the World Cup and we will give it whatever we have,” Petrovic said. “We respect Japan as the best side in Asia but we still plan on beating them.”
Twenty years ago during the qualifiers for USA 1994, Iraq denied Japan its first appearance at the finals by coming from behind to produce a draw here in the Qatari capital, in the match that has since been known as the “Tragedy in Doha.”
Two decades on, the stage is set for Japanese payback.
“In Japanese football history, this is a place we can’t ever forget,” Kagawa said. “But we are taking the necessary steps to move on toward the future.
“Wherever I play, I will be ready. It’s really important for us to win and I hope we can finish the qualifying campaign on a high note before going to the Confederations Cup.”
Zaccheroni eyes changes
Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni on Monday hinted at major changes to his team for the first time during the Italian’s three-year reign, saying the competition for places on his World Cup 23 will begin after the Confederations Cup.
Since taking over for Takeshi Okada after the 2010 World Cup, Zaccheroni has largely stuck with the group of players who helped him win the Asian Cup in January 2011.
But now that Japan has qualified for next year’s World Cup, Zaccheroni appears to be set on wiping the slate clean following the June 15-30 Confederations Cup, where the current team will be put to test against perennial powers Brazil, Italy and Mexico.
“The Confederations Cup will mark the end of a chapter for us,” Zaccheroni said ahead of Tuesday’s match against Iraq, which will mark the end of Japan’s World Cup qualifying campaign. “We will compete in the tournament with the team we’ve had up until now but after that, we enter the final chapter.
“And after the Confederations Cup, everyone will start from ground zero again and the race for the World Cup will begin. And it should be a good race because we have some very good young players coming through the J. League.”
The former AC Milan and Juventus boss didn’t go into specifics as to what kind of a squad he wants to build for Japan’s fifth consecutive World Cup appearance next summer.
Yet judging by his comments Monday, Zaccheroni clearly feels he needs to review the makeup of the Asian champions, who will be trying to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for their first time.
Perhaps the most outstanding criticism leveled at Zaccheroni to date has been his conservative selection policy, but a shakeup could finally be in store as the countdown begins toward Brazil.
The first glance of a potential new-look Japan may be on display during the July 20-28 East Asian Cup in South Korea. Zaccheroni has already said he will not call up the Confederations Cup players for that tournament.