The national team’s three opponents over the next seven days may not present as severe a test as the Netherlands did last month, but that is not to say they have nothing to teach Takeshi Okada’s men.
Japan plays Hong Kong in an Asian Cup qualifier in Shizuoka on Thursday (although a decision on whether to cancel because of the coming typhoon will be taken at noon), before the focus switches back to preparations for the World Cup with friendlies against Scotland on Saturday and Togo next Wednesday.
Okada can harbor reasonable expectations of success against a trio from which only Togo has any chance of qualifying for South Africa, but the manager must still be casting envious glances at two individuals who will line up against his team.
Scotland’s Darren Fletcher and Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor have come through hard times to blossom into accomplished Premier League performers on either side of the Manchester divide, and both are excellent examples for the Japanese to follow.
Neither player has had it easy. United’s Fletcher had to endure years of suspicion and scorn from his own supporters, who were baffled by his constant inclusion in Alex Ferguson’s team and dismissed him as “teacher’s pet” under his fellow Scot.
But Fletcher has since developed into one of United’s most consistent players, sweeping up the midfield in such imperious fashion that his suspension from May’s Champions League final was met with outright despair from the same fans who had earlier turned their noses up at him.
Makoto Hasebe would do well to take heed. The 25-year-old has come on in leaps and bounds since moving to Wolfsburg at the end of 2007, but there is still room for improvement.
With so many attacking players beside him, Hasebe will play a crucial role in South Africa and discipline will be paramount if he is to prevent the kind of mauling that the Dutch doled out in Enschede. Locking horns with Fletcher should be a good place to start.
Similarly, Adebayor has had to overcome difficulties since moving to Arsenal in January 2006. Stepping out from Thierry Henry’s shadow cannot have been easy, but the striker made his time in London a success and — one berserk appearance against his former club notwithstanding — has done well since moving to City in the summer.
Adebayor’s raison d’etre is goals, and lots of them. Unpredictable and unafraid to take the selfish option if he sees a way through, the Togolese is the target man Okada would clearly love to have in his side.
It is no coincidence that the manager has called up the J. League’s top four homegrown goalscorers as well as Catania’s Takayuki Morimoto, ignoring hardworking but goal-shy forwards such as Albirex Niigata’s Kisho Yano. For a striker, goals should be all that count.
Hong Kong, of course, has no such famous names, but Thursday’s game — assuming it goes ahead — is conversely the one that really matters. After losing to Bahrain earlier in the Asian Cup campaign, Japan has no margin for error and failure to take three points in Shizuoka would be disastrous.
But if Okada’s players can emulate Fletcher and Adebayor, the manager can rest easy before taking on the real thing in the days to follow.
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