Japan heads to South Korea for the East Asian Cup this weekend expecting a completely different challenge from last month’s Confederations Cup, but with the disappointment of a first-round exit from Brazil still fresh in the memory, manager Alberto Zaccheroni will be keen to come home with the title.
Japan takes on China in Seoul on Sunday in its first match of the four-team round-robin tournament, with Australia next up the following Thursday before a date with the hosts three days later.
Zaccheroni has selected a 23-man squad drawn exclusively from J. League clubs with only four survivors from the Confederations Cup, and with no fewer than seven players receiving their first call-ups, predicting how the team will fare is impossible.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that a repeat of last month’s results — losses in all three games against Brazil, Italy and Mexico — will further increase the pressure on a manager who suddenly finds himself under scrutiny after three trouble-free years at the helm. Zaccheroni came in for widespread criticism for a perceived inflexibility in his team selection in Brazil, but the 60-year-old insists the glut of new faces for the East Asian Cup is more than just a token gesture and that places in his World Cup squad are genuinely up for grabs.
“I’m well aware of what the players who have got us to this point can do, but I’ve also had the chance to watch how these new players have developed on a weekly basis, and there’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than being able to see them in action,” Zaccheroni said on Monday. “If competition for places gets tougher, it can only encourage the team to get better.”
Zaccheroni certainly cannot be accused of taking the easy option, with two of this season’s leading scorers in the J. League — Yoshito Okubo and reigning player of the year Hisato Sato — passed over in favor of younger contenders. Five players from the squad that finished fourth at last year’s London Olympics have been included, while the likes of Kashima Antlers midfielder Gaku Shibasaki and Cerezo Osaka forward Yoichiro Kakitani offer intriguing possibilities.
“Of course we’ll be playing to win,” said Zaccheroni. “But this is an experimental squad, and if I had to choose between winning with the players not being able to show what they can do, or not winning but finding that one or two of them have what it takes to play for the national team, I’d take the latter.”
Zaccheroni is of course justified considering the East Asian Cup’s place in the grand scheme of things, but the competition does have a habit of throwing up unwanted surprises. Previous manager Takeshi Okada almost lost his job after finishing third at the 2010 edition, while the rivalry that exists between the competing nations makes games fierce and victory far from assured.
Given that Japan has yet to win the competition in four attempts, however, Zaccheroni also has the opportunity to make history. Lifting the trophy while uncovering a few gems in his squad would go a long way toward repairing his reputation, and given the undoubted potential of the personnel he has chosen, anything is possible.
“This is a good chance for the players I have selected to show that they can perform not just in the J. League but at international level too,” said Zaccheroni.
By the end of next week, he will know if that is the case.