For a team so often looking threatened by stormy waters, Japan’s qualification for a fourth successive World Cup has ultimately been plain sailing.
Shinji Okazaki’s ninth-minute winner was enough to give Takeshi Okada’s side a 1-0 win in Uzbekistan to secure passage to South Africa 2010 on Saturday, and although the goal preceded a period of sustained pressure from the Central Asians, the current Group 1 standings tell their own story.
Japan sits seven points clear of third-place Bahrain with two games still to play, having won all three away fixtures so far, scoring more goals than anyone else in the group and becoming the first team in the world to clinch a berth in the finals.
Of course the scheduling of the Asian competition and international time zones helped attain the latter honor, but Japan, and Okada in particular, nonetheless deserves credit for the achievement.
World Cup participation has come to be regarded as something of a birthright since Japan first made the breakthrough to appear in the 1998 tournament, but the sweat and toil required to seal the deal in Tashkent was a reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted.
Okada has come in for severe criticism since taking over for the stricken Ivica Osim late in 2007, and much of it has certainly been warranted. But the manager can take no small measure of satisfaction from the way his methods have been vindicated by qualification.
Okada has shown he is not afraid to ditch underperforming veterans in favor of youthful vigor, and his faith has been rewarded by assured performances from the likes of Okazaki, Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida throughout the campaign.
The manager has also been able to coax the best out of his key men, and although Shunsuke Nakamura, Yuji Nakazawa and Yasuhito Endo will all be the wrong side of 30 in South Africa, the balance of the team should ensure that the sapping heat will not extract too high a toll on their aging legs.
But while qualification has been achieved with room to spare, that is not to say that everything has fallen perfectly into place.
A 1-0 loss to Bahrain in the preliminary round had knives being sharpened for Okada just months into the job, while Japan was lucky to escape with a win after conceding two late goals to the same team in the first game of the final round in Manama.
A home draw with Uzbekistan was equally frustrating, and for all the possession enjoyed by the home side in February’s stalemate against Australia in Yokohama, a late sucker punch from the Socceroos would have put a very different complexion on the group table.
Okada has also undeniably been helped by a very favorable group. Australia did its part by ensuring Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan never rose above their station, and the impact of those three also-rans bleeding points from each other to allow the top two to run off into the distance cannot be overstated.
For all that, however, the Japanese now head into the final two matches with the weight lifted from their shoulders. That gives Okada a chance to give valuable experience to fringe members.
The manager will nonetheless be keen to wrap things up with a flourish by wresting the top spot away from the Australians with a win in Melbourne next week. After steering his team through qualification with such a minimum of fuss, few could begrudge him that satisfaction.
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