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Zaccheroni insists Japan will hit stride at World Cup

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni is confident his side can shape up in time for the World Cup but admits the Blue Samurai are currently running on empty.

Japan beat Cyprus 1-0 on Tuesday night in its final home game before heading to Florida for a pre-World Cup training camp, with further friendlies against Costa Rica and Zambia to come before the campaign begins for real against Cote d’Ivoire on June 14.

Zaccheroni gave a run out to three players — goalscorer Atsuto Uchida, captain Makoto Hasebe and defender Maya Yoshida — who are returning from long injury layoffs, and the manager acknowledged that his team was “not yet up to World Cup speed” after a week of gruelling conditioning work in Kagoshima Prefecture.

“In Ibusuki we were only doing physical training so I couldn’t ask for much sparkle in tonight’s game,” said Zaccheroni. “Tonight was mainly about physical condition and what to do when the players are tired. In that sense I am very satisfied with the way it went.

“We had three players back from injury and I’m satisfied with the way they played. We still have two games left and I want to give them all more time as the games come. I especially want to improve the speed of play. Physical condition equals speed.”

Uchida — who scored the winner from close range two minutes before halftime — did not appear for club side Schalke for the rest of the Bundesliga season after injuring his thigh in February, while Hasebe has undergone two operations on his knee since damaging ligaments at the start of the year.

Yoshida’s Premier League season with Southampton ended when he hurt his knee in training in March, but the center back believes there is still time to regain full fitness after completing 45 second-half minutes against Cyprus.

“The important thing to take from this game was that it helped improve my physical condition and put me in a real match situation,” said Yoshida. “It’s important to get a game under my belt. I haven’t played for the national team in a while, so this has been good for me.

“We missed some chances in the first half but we raised our level after the break. We didn’t manage to score any more goals but given our current condition, I don’t think it was a bad performance.”

Tuesday’s winning send-off marked a contrast to Japan’s final home game before the 2010 World Cup, where a 2-0 loss to South Korea prompted then-manager Takeshi Okada to offer his resignation just weeks before the start of the tournament.

Japan went on to redeem itself with a credible showing in South Africa before losing in the second round on penalties to Paraguay, but goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima believes the current team is better equipped to make an impact.

“This team has a lot of experience with more players playing on the big stages in Europe,” said Kawashima, who plays in Belgium with Standard Liege. “The same goes for me, and I have been able to get that new experience of playing in a difficult environment.

“There weren’t so many players on our team playing abroad four years ago and we didn’t have much international experience. But now the players playing in Japan have also improved, and that combined with the fact that we have more international experience makes this team a different proposition from the one four years ago.”

A crowd of 58,564 turned out at Saitama Stadium to give the team a rousing send-off, and Zaccheroni allowed himself a moment of reflection having taken charge of Japan for the first time with a 1-0 giant-killing victory over a full-strength Argentina in the same arena in October 2010.

“We’ve only had two friendlies in this stadium- the first match against Argentina, and Cyprus in the last one,” he said. “All the other games in Saitama have been World Cup qualifiers and we have won all of them except the one against Australia, which we drew but I consider to be a win anyway.

“I’m very happy to finish this way. I don’t promise results but I do promise that we will try out best to get them.”