The question on everyone’s lips after Japan’s resounding 3-0 thrashing of a second-string Nigerian team, was has Japan turned the corner and will Zico now be given the elbow room he has so craved in order to take the national team to a new level?
A cursory glance at the Nigeria starting lineup emphatically answers the former, as only two players from that team could legitimately lay claim to a regular place in the team.
Furthermore, many of the squad was just waking up when the kickoff whistle sounded, having a short time earlier peeled off their eye-masks after long flights from their various country’s of residence.
For many, Zico’s insistence on calling up the majority of his European-based stars for a friendly against a team of barely international standard, was a sign of a desperate man.
Perhaps the fighter within him realized that only big wins now could save his job after a less-than-impressive start to his reign.
Zico himself neatly dodged these allegations at the post-match press conference, hinting that he was done with experimentation and that he “wanted the core of his squad to grow and develop as a team.”
He added that he “would like to have this team play as many games as possible together as this would enable them to mature in their roles within the side.”
Sven-Goran Eriksson would love to be able to regularly name the same England side for friendly internationals, but he knows that the congested domestic program does not allow for such luxuries.
Nevertheless, Zico’s demands are not without logic and it must be remembered that he had his fair share of weakened teams in his first few games in charge. Zico did not complain at that time — when defeats were mounting and when he was getting criticized — so is it fair to take away credit when wins are accumulated against weaker sides?
Zico’s demeanor in the same post-match conference was that of a relieved coach. He threw the floor open to extra questions after the time limit had passed and went out of his way to praise his team and its performance.
Loathe to single out any individuals for special praise, Zico did, when pressed, point out that Yasuhito Endo had put up his hand to be counted and would be pushing Shinjo Ono hard for a place in midfield.
“Endo played very well today and contributed a lot to the victory. He really took his opportunity to play in the absence of Ono,” he explained.
Strong competition for places — a good sign for any team. This is particularly so in the Japanese midfield where captain Hidetoshi Nakata, the maturing Shunsuke Nakamura, dependable Junichi Inamoto, Shinji Ono, Koji Nakata, Endo and Mitsuo Ogasawara are all battling it out for the four available starting spots.
That is also not to forget Tottenham’s Kazuyuki Toda who was a regular under former coach Philippe Troussier.
Up front remains a headache for Zico, with only Naohiro Takahara proving to be the complete product.
Atsushi Yanagisawa showed on Wednesday night that he has picked up the art of falling over from ex-strike partner and “human ten pin” Takayuki Suzuki, who mercifully seems to have faded from the scene. Yanagisawa needs to join him on the scrap heap, as he showed to all that he is clearly off the pace required at international level.
In this regard, it was slightly disappointing that Zico did not give more playing time to new talent Yoshito Okubo, who certainly has the speed and potential to be the perfect foil for Naohiro Takahara up front.
Zico said that Takahara had only arrived in Japan on the Tuesday before the game — after playing in the German Bundesliga on the Sunday — and wanted to give him a rest, in justifying his substitution for Okubo, instead of taking off the ineffectual Yanagisawa.
Japan looks fairly solid defensively, with Zico having uncovered more young talent in the form of Keisuke Tsuboi, who appears to be gaining in stature with each new game.
While not too much should be read into last week’s victory over Nigeria, wins build momentum and momentum builds confidence.
One is only left to ponder by what margin Troussier would have expected his Japan team to have beaten this Nigerian outfit?
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