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Zaccheroni addresses fitness concerns before final World Cup tune-up

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo

Coach Alberto Zaccheroni on Thursday attempted to play down a number of fitness worries ahead of Japan’s final tune-up for the World Cup against Zambia, even though captain Makoto Hasebe appears to be a concern less than 10 days before the Asian champion kicks off its Group C campaign against Cote d’Ivoire.

Hasebe, who has been trying to regain full fitness after undergoing knee surgery, played 45 minutes of a 1-0 win over Cyprus in Saitama on May 27 but was rested for Monday’s 3-1 win over Costa Rica in Tampa, Florida.

The Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder returned to full training Thursday after working out separately from the team in the previous two sessions but will miss the Zambia match, casting doubts over whether he will be ready for Japan’s opener against the Ivorians in Recife on June 14.

Zaccheroni, speaking at a news conference on the eve of the Zambia game, said, “I don’t want (Hasebe) to rush things and want him to take things nice and slowly.”

“It is really important that Hasebe is here and furthermore I think it is crucial that we have Hasebe in good condition. Right now he is getting himself ready for the main tournament.”

Hasebe in January suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee during a friendly against Steaua Bucharest at a training camp in Spain with former team Nuremberg. He underwent two operations on the knee.

Gotoku Sakai also resumed full training Thursday as did Shinji Okazaki, who missed Wednesday’s session with a slight fever that Zaccheroni half jokingly blamed on the air conditioning at the team’s hotel.

Pointing toward the cooler above him in the press conference room, Zaccheroni said, “The air conditioner is really hitting me hard as I speak and that is probably why (Okazaki was down). If he is OK, then I plan on playing him tomorrow (Friday) but if he isn’t I am not worried because he has been playing constantly this season (with Mainz).”

Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo is nursing a right calf strain.

Zaccheroni said the team’s preparations for Brazil were going to plan and that the mood in the camp was good.

“It is good that the atmosphere in the team is positive and this is the mood that we should have heading towards the World Cup. Everything is going as planned,” said the Italian.

Midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who hardly featured for Manchester United this past season, and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda both played the full 90 minutes against Cyprus and Costa Rica and Zaccheroni said he was pleased with their progress.

“I get the impression that they are getting their match fitness back,” he said.

Zaccheroni, meanwhile, admitted to not knowing much about Zambia, who are currently 76th in the FIFA world rankings.

“I don’t know how Zambia play so we will figure it out during the game,” he said.

Zambia, the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners, has failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Zambia’s French coach, Patrice Beaumelle, said, “Zambia didn’t qualify for Brazil but we won the 2012 African Cup and the dream was to bring this team to the World Cup for the first time. Unfortunately we failed in the last (qualifying) game against Ghana. The dream stopped but we have to move on, we have a good generation and if we continue this way one day we will bring Zambia to the World Cup.

“I know and have a lot of respect for the Japanese team. If I am not mistaken this will be the fifth time they have qualified for the World Cup. They have players at the biggest clubs in the world like Kagawa and Honda and I think they have the same team spirit and teamwork like we try to do.”