Zaccheroni focused on improving team defense

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni has pledged to stick by his embattled defenders, insisting on Thursday he would not swap them for anyone else in the world.

Japan takes on friendly opponents Guatemala in Osaka on Sept. 6 and Ghana in Yokohama four days later, with the Asian champions looking to shore up at the back having conceded a glut of goals in recent games.

Japan allowed nine goals in three matches at the Confederations Cup in June before letting in four in a friendly against Uruguay earlier this month, but Zaccheroni is refusing to press the panic button and gave his defensive crew a vote of confidence as he named his 23-man squad on Thursday.

“I trust the players I have,” the Italian said at the Japan Football Association’s headquarters in Tokyo. “We’ve conceded a lot of goals recently, but you have to take the players’ physical condition into account and it has been the offseason in Europe.

“I now have 10 days to work with the team, and I want to organize it better and get the defensive line connecting better with the midfield and attack. I’m very confident in my defenders. Even if I could choose any defender from anywhere in the world, I wouldn’t change all that much.”

Zaccheroni has brought in some fresh faces in attack, however, calling up Kashima Antlers’ Yuya Osako and Yokohama F. Marinos’ Manabu Saito after both impressed in an entirely domestic-based selection at last month’s East Asian Cup in South Korea.

“We have two games and it would be nice to see them in action, but really I called them up to see how they combine with the regular members in training,” said Zaccheroni. “Both are playing very well in the J.League, and I can see they have improved a lot. It’s a good time to give them a chance in the national team.

“Osako’s strengths are his movement in the box, his power, dynamism and defensive abilities, but what has stood out recently has been his finishing. Saito is very hard to contain and he stretches defenses. The important thing with the national team is that they have to be up to the global standard and contribute in attack and defense, and both look capable of doing that.”

There was no place in the squad for several Europe-based regulars, including Vitesse Arnhem’s Mike Havenaar and Hertha Berlin’s Hajime Hosogai, but Zaccheroni denied the success of his home-based players at the East Asian Cup has altered his thinking.

“I think of the Europe-based players and the J.League players equally,” said the 60-year-old. “This time there are players doing well in the J.League who I wanted to take a look at. The players know that just because they move to Europe it doesn’t mean they will automatically get into the national team, and they also know that they don’t have to move to get their chance.”

Guatemala arrives for the game at Nagai Stadium having already been eliminated from 2014 World Cup qualifying, but Japan can expect a tougher test from a Ghana side welcoming Chelsea’s Michael Essien and AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng back into the fold.

“These two games are important for the growth of the team,” said Zaccheroni. “In the World Cup qualifiers we were looking to get results and improve the team, but inevitably the priority had to be on results. Now we are playing these friendlies, I want to shift the emphasis onto how we can get better.

“I don’t want to change too much — it’s just a matter of bringing in a few new players. We have two different opponents, one from Central America and one from Africa, and Ghana are one of the very best teams in Africa.”