• Kyodo

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Japan coach Zico will once again be walking on thin ice when the Asian champion faces Bahrain in its Asian zone qualifier for the 2006 World Cup in Saitama on Wednesday night.

Zico paid the price for deciding to switch to a 4-4-2 formation that Japan struggled to cope with, as it went down 2-1 to Iran in Tehran on Friday and dropped a point behind Iran and Bahrain in Group B.

Anything less than a win against ever-improving Bahrain would not only hurt Japan’s chances of automatically qualifying for the finals in Germany but also pile more pressure on the Brazilian.

Zico tried to play down the defeat to Iran saying there was “no cause to be pessimistic” but there is growing discontent among his players, who have lost confidence in their coach and were quick to point the finger after the Iran defeat.

“We’re used to the 3-5-2 formation and prefer that system. Tonight I didn’t know where to go to get the ball and my timing was all over the place,” said striker Naohiro Takahara, who had arguably one of his worst-ever games in a Japan shirt.

Italian-based midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who also underperformed, echoed Takahara’s comments, saying the only solution was to bring back the 3-5-2 formation.

“We had to focus too much on covering and marking our opponents. We are so used to the 3-5-2 shape that you don’t even need to look up when you pass the ball. The best way to solve the problem is to bring that formation back.”

The team’s harmony had already been disrupted before a ball had even been kicked at Azadi Stadium, with players bickering over tactics and confronting each other in training.

Zico’s decision to deploy a system that the players have never looked comfortable with and start Hidetoshi Nakata as captain in his first match back in almost a year had raised a few eyebrows, not least those of Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, who had done such a fine job as skipper in Nakata’s absence.

To his credit, Nakata urged Zico to let Miyamoto retain the captain’s armband but even the Gamba Osaka player was helpless as Japan’s defense was pulled all over the place by two-goal hero Vahid Hashemian and Ali Karimi.

Nakata, who improved after disappearing off the radar for long periods in the first half, lamented Japan’s inability to take its chances.

“In the first half Iran were the better side. We got a goal back and had a good 15-minute period but we should have got another goal and couldn’t,” Nakata told Kyodo News.

Shinji Ono was one of the few players along with goal scorer Takashi Fukunishi to deliver but will miss the Bahrain clash due to an accumulation of yellow cards.

“This group had turned into a three-horse race between us, Iran and Bahrain. We have only played two games and nothing is decided yet,” Zico said after Friday’s defeat.

Bahrain will be a tough nut to crack as Zico found out at the Asian Cup last summer and unless the Brazilian finds a quick solution to the problems facing him, the three-horse race could narrow down to two. And Japan won’t be one of them.

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