Japan to face tough road in World Cup qualifying

Kyodo, AP

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni insists his Asian champions will have no easy ride after being drawn in a tricky Group C with North Korea, Uzbekistan and Syria for the third qualifying round of the 2014 World Cup on Saturday.

“This is the third round of qualifying so there are no easy groups and no easy opponents,” the Italian coach said Sunday.

“We are the Asian champions, so our opponents will be doing their homework and come at us firing on all cylinders, but we will just focus on each and every match. This is significant as it will be my first experience of World Cup qualifying. I am always eager for new challenges and am looking forward to this first experience.”

The third round of Asian qualifiers begins Sept. 2. The top two from each of the five groups advance to the yearlong final qualifying campaign starting in June 2012.

Japan opens its campaign against North Korea in Saitama on Sept. 2 and then faces Uzbekistan away on Sept. 6. Zaccheroni’s men face Syria in Osaka on Oct. 11 followed by away games against Syria and North Korea on Nov. 11 and 15, respectively. They wrap up the third round at home to the Uzbeks at Toyota Stadium on Feb. 29 next year.

The 10 teams in the final round will be split into two groups, with the top two from each group automatically qualifying for Brazil. The third-place sides face off for a spot in the intercontinental playoff against a team from South America for a potential fifth place from Asia.

Japan was one of five Asian seeds for Saturday’s preliminary draw, but landed in a very competitive group — at the hands of former coach Zico, who assisted in the event.

While Japan — which has yet to lose in the 10 games Zaccheroni has been in charge — is easily the highest ranked team of the four at 16th, its three opponents are anything but pushovers.

North Korea (115) raised a few eyebrows at the 2010 World Cup, while Uzbekistan (83) reached the semifinals of this year’s Asian Cup in Qatar where Syria (104) tested the Japanese despite a 2-1 defeat in the group phase.

Japan and Uzbekistan were also grouped together during the final qualifiers for South Africa.

“There are no easy groups. Whoever you play in Asia it is always a tough battle,” Japan’s Belgian-based goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima said. “The most important thing is that we all prepare well.”

Added Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa, “Whoever you play it is difficult and we cannot afford to be complacent against any of our opponents.”

“Our first two games will be important,” said Japan Football Association technical director Hiromi Hara. “This is World Cup qualifying so our opponents will be really up for it. We just have to try and pick up points from each of our matches.”

North Korea striker Chong Tese, who used to play in Japan and is now at German second-division club Bochum, said on his blog, “We will definitely qualify with Japan. It’s the group of death and Japan and Uzbekistan will both be feeling the heat.”

Japan was drawn together with North Korea in the final qualifying round for the 2006 finals and won 2-0 behind closed doors in Bangkok to book its ticket to Germany.

That match had been scheduled to be played in Pyongyang but soccer’s world governing body FIFA ordered North Korea to play the match at a neutral venue as punishment for crowd violence that marred its 2-0 qualifying defeat to Iran in the reclusive state’s capital.

The draw in Rio determined the path of 166 teams in their bid to qualify for the tournament in three years’ time. It was the first major World Cup event in Brazil since the South American nation was awarded the competition in 2007. As host, Brazil is the only nation that doesn’t have to qualify.

“We are happy to be back in Brazil,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.

Fifty-three European nations were divided into nine groups, with the winners automatically qualifying and the eight best group runnersup advancing to a playoff. The European qualifying matches will begin Sept. 7 and end Oct. 15, 2013.

Spain is in a difficult Group I, pitted against 1998 winner France, Georgia, Belarus and Finland.

The draw placed England with 2012 European Championship co-hosts Ukraine and Poland in Group H. Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino also are in the group.

“It will be interesting, there won’t be easy matches,” England coach Fabio Capello said. “England will have to be very careful, especially against Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine.”

Italy will meet Denmark and the Czech Republic in Group B, while Germany faces Sweden, Austria and Ireland in Group C.