Japan goes back to the future on Saturday night as Takeshi Okada oversees his first match back in charge of the national side with a friendly at National Stadium against Chile.
The 51-year-old coach returns to the helm after guiding Japan to its first World Cup in 1998, and although the circumstances of his second coming are far from ideal, the timing has proved grimly convenient.
Okada was called in to take over for previous incumbent Ivica Osim in December, shortly after the Bosnian suffered a stroke that convinced the Japan Football Association (JFA) he could not continue in the job. With 2010 World Cup qualification matches beginning in early February, the onus was on the JFA to act quickly and give Osim’s replacement time to prepare before the new campaign began.
Saturday’s match against the South Americans and next Wednesday’s game against Bosnia-Herzegovina now gives Okada the chance to run the rule over his side before the first qualification match kicks off against Thailand in Saitama on Feb. 6.
“My hair is a little grayer since the last time I was national team coach, but this is a different situation,” Okada said at a news conference on Friday night. “It was 10 years ago and I didn’t really have time to think about how I felt about it then. That was in the middle of the World Cup-qualifying campaign.
“This is just a friendly, and this is not my first time as national team coach. If things aren’t going well, I will make changes as I see fit.”
But those hoping for a revolution after Japan’s disappointing showing under Osim at last summer’s Asian Cup will be disappointed. Okada’s first squad contains only one new name — Kashima Antlers’ Daiki Iwamasa. Much-vilified players such as Naotake Hanyu, Satoru Yamagishi and Seiichiro Maki, all favorites of Osim from his time in charge of JEF United, remain.
But while the players may stay the same, Okada has brought with him a bullish optimism entirely absent during Osim’s reign.
The new coach declared shortly after taking over that Japan could finish third at the 2010 World Cup. While this may sound fanciful, it is at least a departure from Osim’s exasperated protests that his players did not even know how to kick a ball.
“I would be lying if I said that I was not under any pressure,” Okada said. “I will just do my best, and if I do that then I’m sure everything will go well. I can’t let it worry me.”
But to cast Okada as the fearless buccaneer in contrast to Osim’s dour pragmatism is to ignore the poetry in the Bosnian’s soul.
Osim opted for three attacking midfielders at the Asian Cup, leaving only Keita Suzuki to do the dirty work as Shunsuke Nakamura, Yasuhito Endo and Kengo Nakamura weaved their passing patterns around the pitch.
This also left Japan short of thrust and pace in the middle of the pitch, and Okada may turn to Yuki Abe or Koji Yamase in an attempt to provide a more direct approach.
The absence of Shunsuke Nakamura, busy with his club team Celtic in Europe, will necessitate a reshuffle in the first-team lineup, but Okada can now call on Naohiro Takahara for the qualifiers.
The striker, back in the J. League with Urawa Reds after 5 1/2 years in Germany, could be asked to form a partnership up front with Yoshito Okubo.