No Takahara, no problem.
Japan heads to the Athens Olympics in high spirits after finally solving a striker crisis that had looked set to undermine the quest for its first medal in 36 years.
Yoshito Okubo, Sota Hirayama, Daiki Takamatsu and Tatsuya Tanaka all finally found their scoring touch to break a three-match goal drought in a recent 4-0 victory over Venezuela in Tokyo.
The timing of Japan’s victory could not have been better.
Japan coach Masakuni Yamamoto’s ill-fated decision to pick Naohiro Takahara as one of three “over-age” players to appear at the Olympics had looked set to backfire on him.
Despite the odds being stacked against Takahara recovering from a deep vein thrombosis relapse, Yamamoto waited until the last minute in the hope that Takahara would be fit to compete in Greece.
But on the eve of the Olympic squad announcement, the Japan Football Association’s medical team warned that playing Takahara in Athens would endanger the striker’s health, and he was ultimately excluded, leaving Yamamoto without a genuine replacement.
However, Cerezo Osaka marksman Okubo, who played a pivotal role in helping Japan qualify for Athens, and his fellow strikers have given Japan renewed hope and put a smile back on the relieved coach’s face.
“Goals have been hard to come by recently but we can now head to Athens in good form,” said Yamamoto, whose side had failed to win in its previous five matches before the Venezuela game.
“Expectations are high and we will be doing everything we can to respond by winning our first Olympic medal in 36 years,” added Yamamoto, referring to Japan’s bronze medal performance at the Mexico City Games in 1968.
Yamamoto will be hoping Feyenoord’s Shinji Ono, who has been called up as an over-age player with Kashima Antlers goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, can provide the forwards with more ammunition in a tricky first-round Group B.
A quarterfinalist in Sydney four years ago, Japan must get off to a good start against Paraguay in its Aug. 12 opener, although Venezuela coach Richard Paez Monzon has warned Japan it will have its hands full against the team that eliminated Brazil in the qualifiers.
“When we played against Paraguay they were solid and very dangerous on the counterattack. The team is in good shape and as South America’s representatives I expect them to achieve good results.”
Yamamoto’s team, which also includes dead-ball specialist Yuki Abe and rugged Brazilian-born defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, then takes on Italy and Ghana, which claimed the bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.
Tanaka and Co. will have their work cut out at the back against European U-21 champion Italy, which has included AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo and Parma striker Alberto Gilardino in its squad.
Despite starting as a strong favorite for the gold, Italy coach Claudio Gentile is not underestimating Japan.
“Japan are quick, technically skilled and have several promising players. We will have to work hard and arrive in Athens in our best physical and mental condition,” Gentile said.
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