A plethora of new faces meant Japan’s East Asian Cup campaign was never going to go off without a hitch, but after winning the title for the first time and discovering some genuine World Cup squad candidates in the process, manager Alberto Zaccheroni has every right to be satisfied with the outcome.
Japan beat tournament host South Korea 2-1 on Sunday night to lift the trophy at the fifth attempt, finishing two points clear in first place after a 3-3 opening draw with China and a 3-2 win over Australia. A total of eight goals scored and six conceded tells the story of an unfamiliar squad coming together for the first time, but the team gained in strength as the competition progressed and Yoichiro Kakitani’s 91st-minute winner against the Koreans was proof of its growing resolve.
“The players exceeded my expectations, but I already knew they had quality,” Zaccheroni said of an exclusively domestic-based squad featuring seven players called up for the first time. “The fact that the players were able to grasp the team concept so quickly is proof of their intelligence. I could feel their desire to make the most of their chance.”
Several players did just that, with Kakitani finishing as the tournament’s top scorer on three goals and midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi winning the golden ball for best player. Yuya Osako and Manabu Saito also caught the eye with well-taken goals against Australia, while regular squad members Yuzo Kurihara and Hideto Takahashi led by example alongside less-experienced teammates.
Inevitably, there were also those who failed to rise to the challenge, but after overseeing a first-round exit at June’s Confederations Cup with a squad accused of becoming predictable and stale, Zaccheroni will be thankful for the breath of fresh air.
“I feel like I have a lot of options, and although every player is different, the fact that my options have now increased is a big thing,” said Zaccheroni. “Some players are ready to be called up now and some will play for the national team in the future. Of course they need more international experience, but I can see they have quality. It’s fair to say that these 23 players are candidates for the national team.”
The East Asian Cup may have little significance in the wider scheme of things, but for Zaccheroni and Japan, last week’s triumph could prove to be a timely shot in the arm.
Firstly, lifting the trophy goes some way toward restoring the manager’s bruised reputation after a Confederations Cup campaign in which his methods were called into question for the first time in his three year-reign.
Secondly, with a squad comprised entirely of home-based players, victory will help boost the confidence of a J. League weakened in recent years by a player exodus to Europe, and feeling neglected by a national team manager whose focus has at times appeared squarely fixed overseas.
“This proves that there good players in Japan,” said Zaccheroni. “Now I want each player to go back to their club with a strong sense of awareness and show what they can do.”
Whether any of the East Asian Cup squad makes it to Brazil next summer remains to be seen, but at least now they have something tangible to work toward.