If national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni was looking for reassurance from this week’s visit to Belgium, two excellent performances and results to match were a timely reminder that Japan is more than capable of making an impact at next summer’s World Cup.
Japan came from behind to claim a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands on Saturday before taking a prize scalp three days later with an impressive 3-2 win over a Belgium side tipped as dark horses to win the tournament in Brazil. Neither result could disguise significant problems that still need to be addressed in Zaccheroni’s team, but after two dispiriting defeats to Serbia and Belarus last month, the impact on collective confidence should not be underestimated.
Japan crackled with attacking intent in all but a faltering first half against the Dutch, with Shinji Kagawa looking close to his vibrant best, Keisuke Honda imperious and Yuya Osako and Yoichiro Kakitani both impressing in the center forward position that has long been Japan’s Achilles’ heel.
Hotaru Yamaguchi also looked the part as he broke up the long-standing midfield axis of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe as a starter in both games, while other backup players took their chances to varying degrees as Zaccheroni shuffled his pack.
“We have to continue in the same vein,” the Italian said after beating Belgium in Brussels. “I saw things in this game that we have to fix, but I want the players to be conscious not to lapse into the kind of performance we gave against Serbia and Belarus, play our own game and strive to improve.”
After conceding soft goals against both the Dutch and Belgians, the areas for improvement that Zaccheroni identified most certainly include defense. Far too many crass errors have been made by players who should know better, and concentration must be paramount if Japan is to avoid undermining its potent attacking threat with careless mistakes in Brazil.
“The fact that Japan conceded first against both the Netherlands and Belgium is something to think about,” wrote former Vegalta Sendai manager Hidehiko Shimizu in Wednesday’s Yukan Fuji. “If teams take the lead in the World Cup they will close ranks in defense, and unpicking a massed defense has always been a problem for Japan.”
Zaccheroni can at least be satisfied with the way his side saw its lead through to the end — albeit barely — against Belgium, while the manager did his own battered reputation no harm with a series of bold selections.
“Until the games against Serbia and Belarus, the starting lineup had been pretty much set in stone,” former Japan striker Shoji Jo wrote in Thursday’s Sports Nippon. “You could hear the reserves saying ‘it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to play anyway.’ Motivation had been eaten away and was at a low.
“(Atsuto) Uchida made a mistake against the Netherlands and he was dropped for the next game, which will keep him on his toes. That will have a big effect.”
After a mixed year in which public confidence in Japan’s World Cup prospects has wavered, the successes of the past week could not have come at a better time. The tournament is now only seven months away, and Zaccheroni can begin to plan for his first-round opposition when the draw is made on Dec. 6.
After the past week’s performances, Japan is one team the other 31 will be hoping to avoid.