Japan’s disappointing 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Bahrain this week came with no foreign-based players on the field, but it was the absence of one J. League stalwart that hit the hardest.

Urawa Reds defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka was left out of Takeshi Okada’s squad, and although the naturalized Brazilian has missed recent games for his club side because of injury, his national team omission looked more out of preference than necessity.

Okada deployed a three-man back line in Manama, choosing Yuki Abe and Yasuyuki Konno to play alongside Yuji Nakazawa, with the emphasis on speed and mobility rather than brute strength.

Bahrain, however, sliced the Japanese defense to shreds.

Whether that would have been the case had Tulio been in the team is impossible to say, but a center-back pairing with Nakazawa would certainly not have been knocked around so easily.

As arguably the two most natural defenders in Japanese soccer, it seems strange that Tulio and Nakazawa have started only four matches together.

A series of injuries caused Tulio to miss a big chunk of 2007, including the Asian Cup in Vietnam, but the snatches of power and solidity shown in those four games with Nakazawa suggest Okada would do well to look again.

It is no coincidence that some of Japan’s most impressive performances since the 2006 World Cup — the March 2007 win over Peru and the 4-3 thriller against Switzerland in September — have come with Tulio and Nakazawa at the core of the defense.

The return of Tulio would not only remedy a back line that has looked fragile since Okada took over late last year, but might also go some way toward injecting more steel into the midfield.

Abe, a teammate of Tulio’s at Urawa, is a utility man par excellence, but he has paid the price for his versatility since making the breakthrough to the national team.

Abe has been used as a center-back, left-back and defensive midfielder for both club and country, but Okada seems to have decided he is best suited in defense.

Abe is certainly good at the back, but his talents are wasted when there is a need for more stability further forward.

Defensive midfielder Keita Suzuki often looks overworked with no one to help him breaking up the play and providing cover for the back line, and Abe would slot in seamlessly alongside him.

Both players are well-acquainted with Tulio’s appetite for bursts into attack, and instinctively track back to cover the space he leaves behind.

Such a formation would still find room to accommodate more inventive talents such as Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo, and would liberate them from getting their hands dirty in the hurly-burly of central midfield, allowing them to concentrate on creating from wide positions.

Whatever Okada decides to do, after Wednesday night he must make sure he gets it right.

The surreal atmosphere of Manama’s National Stadium, with its blaring pipes and incessant wailing, might have played a part in Japan’s downfall, but Bahrain will be no pushover when it visits Saitama on June 22.

Anything less than a win in the next match, against Oman in Yokohama on June 2, will put Japan’s chances of participation in the final World Cup qualification stage in real jeopardy.

With such a wealth of talent available to the manager, it would be unforgivable for that to happen.

* * * * *

Kawasaki Frontale began the season with easily the most potent strike force in the J. League.

Two games into the season and it looks like the wheels have fallen off already.

Hulk, the Brazilian who scored 62 goals in two seasons on loan to J2 clubs before returning to the Kawasaki nest at the start of the year, looks to be on his way out of the club after a bust-up with management.

Reports of the Hulkster turning green and leaping out of Todoroki Stadium in a single bound remain unconfirmed, but his transfer-listing will make very interesting reading for several J. League clubs.

One team that could definitely do with his presence up front is Yokohama F. Marinos.

Marinos have made an impressive start to the season, but new striker Roni has looked, quite frankly, awful.

Hulk would fit the bill perfectly, and with one berth on their foreigner quota left to fill, Marinos could well make a move.

Then again, Urawa Reds also have room for another overseas player.

And with star signing Naohiro Takahara yet to start firing, and the natives getting restless in Saitama, whisper it, but Japan’s golden boy could soon have competition for a starting place.

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