Vietnam and Tajikistan are unlikely to ask too many questions of Japan’s defense over the coming week, but a Keisuke Honda-sized hole in attack could prove to be more of a problem for national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni.
Japan takes on Vietnam in a friendly in Kobe on Friday before facing the Tajiks in a World Cup qualifier in Osaka four days later, with Zaccheroni’s men having taken four points from the campaign so far after a home win over North Korea and an away draw with Uzbekistan.
Both of those results were achieved without injured talisman Honda, and Japan will again have to cope without the attacking midfielder after a knee injury sustained on duty with club side CSKA Moscow.
Zaccheroni’s solution last time out was to look for a like-for-like replacement in the center of a trio behind one main striker, but the Italian soon found that filling Honda’s boots is easier said than done. Yosuke Kashiwagi looked out of his depth against the North Koreans, while captain Makoto Hasebe was also less than effective pushed forward from his usual midfield position in Tashkent.
Given the form Hiroshi Kiyotake has been in this season, it was surprising to see the young left-sided Cerezo Osaka attacker start both matches on the bench. Kiyotake was hugely impressive in his debut against South Korea in August, and it was not until he came on against both North Korea and Uzbekistan — with Shinji Kagawa shifting to the center — that Japan finally began to click.
This time, however, that option is not available. A muscular injury has forced Kiyotake out of the squad, and Zaccheroni must now decide whether to find a replacement to fit the system or switch things around with a change of formation.
In Jungo Fujimoto and Genki Haraguchi, Zaccheroni certainly has the personnel to continue with 4-2-3-1 and attempt to plug the gap. Both players are versatile enough to fill any position along the front line, and both have the quality to pose a threat to any Asian defense.
Given that Kashiwa Reysol fullback Hiroki Sakai was the man chosen to replace Kiyotake in the squad, however, it may be that Zaccheroni is preparing to embed his 3-4-3 system further into the team’s consciousness. Sakai’s galloping runs up and down the flank for Reysol this season suggest he is ideally suited to the formation, while the returning Yuto Nagatomo has experience of playing that way with club side Inter Milan.
In practice, though, the manager is likely to mix and match his tactics, and he will be looking for evidence in the dry run against Vietnam that his side is capable of shifting shape and adapting to situations as and when they arise. Given the defensive outlook the Tajiks will no doubt bring to Nagai Stadium for the qualifier, Japan will need to have as many tricks up its sleeve as possible to unpick the lock.
That will be of paramount importance in a game from which nothing less than a win will suffice. Japan has done well to take four points from its two qualifying matches so far, but unless three more are claimed from the Tajiks in what should be the most straightforward encounter in the section, the situation will look very different indeed.
Regardless of who plays and how, it would be unthinkable for Japan to slip up.