Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

Let Alex run free up front

by Alastair Himmer

Japan strikers are a delicate bunch. Atsushi Yanagisawa went down with “Beirut Belly” during the Asian Cup in 2000 and has not touched a kebab since.

More recently, Boca Juniors reject Naohiro Takahara developed an icky blood clot and Bolton Wanderers misfit Akinori Nishizawa was rushed to a Madrid hospital to have his appendix out. Both players now have little hope of playing in the World Cup.

Unless you have been living under a rock, or are more concerned with how the Hanshin Tigers are doing this season (which is more or less the same thing), you will know that Japan coach Philippe Troussier names his final 23-man World Cup squad on Friday.

The finals kick off in Seoul on May 31. The Frenchman would rather it was a month later.

Since taking charge in September 1998, Troussier has performed miracles not seen since Lazarus picked up his bed and walked into “Starbucks” for a tall latte and a sticky bun.

Despite his success, and a current seven-match unbeaten run in internationals, however, he still has some serious selection headaches ahead of his Friday cut-off date.

What does he do about Shunsuke Nakamura, the closest thing Japan has to Matt Le Tissier? (Drop him, unfortunately. No room.)

Does he take a risk on experienced Iwata midfielder Hiroshi Nanami? (Yes.) Has Mitsuo Ogasawara stopped sulking? (Not sure.) Is Junichi Inamoto dreaming of a move to Birmingham City? (Probably.) Will Daisuke Oku defy logic and make it onto the team bus? (Not unless he disguises himself as the kit boy.)

In attack, the cupboard is almost bare for Japan. With half of his strikers lounging around in Gucci pajamas eating grapes and the others firing blanks, Troussier must be hoping for some divine intervention at the World Cup.

To help solve the problem, here is a tip to guarantee success in the first round (or your money back): STICK SANTOS UP FRONT!

Alessandro “Alex” Santos should play just behind Yanagisawa, giving Japan a 3-5-1-1 shape and a lorry-load of attacking options based around the speed of the front two, assured of quality service from Shinji Ono and Hidetoshi Nakata behind them.

As Takayuki Suzuki (three goals in 15 games) is clearly not up to the job, it makes little sense to restrict Santos to a “supersub” role at the World Cup. Give him a license to thrill, I say. Go on, Philippe. You know it makes sense.

For those of you who can’t wait until Friday, here’s a sneak preview of the players Troussier should be naming in his World Cup squad.

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THE “BALD” SQUAD

Goalkeepers:

Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Portsmouth. Appearances: 52 Goals: 0): Did well at the 1998 World Cup in France and still Japan’s undisputed No. 1. Excellent shot stopper, but a Dracula-like fear of crosses.
Seigo Narazaki (Nagoya. 18/0): Experience of Sydney Olympics makes him the natural stand-in for Kawaguchi.
Hitoshi Sogahata (Kashima. 2/0): More is known about the mating habits of plankton than his international credentials.

Defenders:

Toshihiro Hattori (Iwata. 36/2): Japan’s “Mr. Fix-it” can play in defense or midfield. Should return to his rightful place starting on the left of the back three, pronto. Not one to shirk a tackle and rarely puts a foot wrong, neither of which you can say about Koji Nakata.
Ryuzo Morioka (Shimizu. 32/0): Asian Cup captain has been sorely missed since tearing a hamstring in early March. Fit again, which should relegate Tsuneyasu Miyamoto to the bench. Shoot me if I am wrong about this.
Naoki Matsuda (Yokohama. 29/0): No-nonsense defender has his critics, despite being more reliable than Miyamoto. His “mistake” for the third goal against Honduras on May 2 was actually the result of Miyamoto having gone walkabout for the umpteenth time.
Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama. 9/2): Deserves more playing time than he gets. Solid in the tackle, his aerial strength would also give Japan an extra threat at set pieces.
Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (Gamba Osaka. 10/0): Has the positioning sense of a demented badger and the pace of an old penguin. Too small (176 cm) for a central role and will pull out of 70-30 balls, let alone 50-50. Personally, I would have gone with Yutaka Akita (Kashima. 38/3) instead as cover.
Koji Nakata (Kashima. 25/0): A disaster waiting to happen. Prone to panic attacks, could be as much of a defensive liability in this World Cup as Antlers teammate Naoki Soma was in 1998. Unfortunately a lack of alternatives on the left of the defense means he will make the squad.

Midfielders:

Hidetoshi Nakata (Parma. 41/7): Will come into the World Cup on a high after helping Parma win the Italian Cup. Must play the full 90 minutes of every match. Favorite to wear the captain’s armband.
Shinji Ono (Feyenoord. 25/2): Has enjoyed a remarkable first season in Europe. Winning the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord last Wednesday will give the entire Japan squad a huge boost before the World Cup. Like (Hidetoshi) Nakata, indispensable to the Japan side.
Junichi Inamoto (Arsenal. 28/1): Should start in his customary midfield holding role at the World Cup. Will be fresh after a season of inactivity at Arsenal. Looked sharp against Real Madrid last week.
Kazuyuki Toda (Shimizu. 14/1): Has become the heart and soul of the Japan side since making his debut at last year’s Confederations Cup.

Alessandro Santos (Shimizu. 4/1): Set to be Japan’s “X-Factor” at the World Cup. Supplier of quality crosses from the left but could be equally dangerous through the middle.
Takashi Fukunishi (Iwata. 10/0): Solid ball-winning midfielder who gets forward well and is strong in the air.
Tomokazu Myojin (Kashiwa. 21/3): Versatile, dependable, proved at the Asian Cup that he can also score vital goals.
Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima. 4/0): A future star for Japan who possesses wonderful range of passing and dead-ball skills. Upset at being substituted midway through the first half against Costa Rica on April 17. Will be desperate to show Troussier how stupid that decision was.
Daisuke Ichikawa (Shimizu. 5/0): A recent addition to the squad, he did his chances no harm with an impressive display in the 2-0 win over Poland on March 27.
Hiroaki Morishima (Cerezo Osaka. 61/11): Always a handful for defenses playing in the “hole” behind the forwards or as an out-and-out striker.
Hiroshi Nanami (Iwata. 68/9): Back in contention after recovering from knee surgery. Player of the Tournament at the Asian Cup, his experience would prove invaluable to Japan at the World Cup.

Forwards:

Atsushi Yanagisawa (Kashima. 25/9): Japan’s only international-class striker must start every game at the World Cup. Electrifying pace and a lethal finisher when not being picked on by Troussier.
Takayuki Suzuki (Kashima. 15/3): Has taken over the bull-in-a-china-shop role previously the copyright of Masashi Nakayama. His job is to score goals, but he is apparently on strike. Odds-on to get sent off.
Tatsuhiko Kubo (Hiroshima. 13/0): Yet to score for Japan but has only started two matches. An oddball character capable of producing something unpredictable, if the planets are correctly aligned.

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