SAITAMA — New national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni has urged his players to shed their inferiority complex and start believing they can beat the world’s best, pointing to Friday night’s remarkable win over Argentina as evidence.
Zaccheroni got his reign off to the perfect start by beating the South American heavyweights 1-0 in his first match in charge, with Japan outplaying a full-strength opponent for whom world player of the year Lionel Messi and Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez both appeared for the full 90 minutes.
Now the Italian wants his new charges to keep imposing themselves with an eye on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and says Friday’s win proves they are good enough to do so.
“There are a lot of talented players in Japan, but some of them just don’t realize it,” the former Milan and Juventus manager said after the game. “I want to raise their confidence, and especially I want those players who haven’t realized how good they are to keep on going and aim for the 2014 World Cup. Today’s game was just a small part of a big job, and we have to keep looking in the long term.
“This win was very important, but more than the result it’s the confidence it gives the players that matters. Our goal is not to beat Argentina — it is to grow as a team.”
Japan recovered from a nervy start at Saitama Stadium to take a 19th-minute lead through Shinji Okazaki, and went on to put the two-time World Cup champion in the shade with a performance full of verve and maturity.
Zaccheroni admits Argentina’s lofty reputation made his debut a daunting assignment, but the Italian’s nerves were soon settled when he saw what his players were capable of.
“Argentina, along with Spain, are probably the best team in the world at the moment, and obviously I was nervous about taking on such strong opposition,” he said. “Before the game I told the players that if they wanted to win this match they would have to do so playing as a team.
“Both teams had big chances and Japan could certainly have scored a second or a third goal. At the start we were a bit nervous, but we gained in confidence as the game went on and coped very well with some difficult situations. The big issue today was how to finish the match against such an experienced team, but we maintained our compact shape.”
Japan now heads to Seoul for a Tuesday friendly against old rival South Korea, and the team has won a new admirer in Argentina manager Sergio Batista.
“Japan’s growth has been really very striking,” said Batista, who took over as caretaker manager from Diego Maradona after the World Cup. “I’ve seen Japan play a lot over the past five years and of course at the World Cup, and now they’re good enough to take on anyone.
“It’s remarkable how much they’ve improved. They’re technically very good and I got the impression today that this team had been very well prepared over a long period of time, including the World Cup.”
Batista blamed fatigue for his team’s sluggish display, but nonetheless praised his players’ effort after making the long journey east.
“We couldn’t play the way we wanted and Japan didn’t let us play,” he said. “But I can go home satisfied because my players did very well. . .”
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