Japan looking to maintain high standards as Brazil beckons


Japan can take a giant step toward a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance by beating Iraq in next Tuesday’s Brazil 2014 qualifier in Saitama, and if Alberto Zaccheroni’s side can come anywhere close to matching its recent performances, the visitors will be in for a rough evening.

Japan takes on the United Arab Emirates in Niigata on Thursday in a tuneup for next week’s main event, with Zaccheroni’s men sitting in a commanding position at the top of Group B after two wins and a draw from their opening three games. The fixture list and other results in the group have combined to help Japan seize the early advantage, but such favors have hardly been needed by a side playing some of the best soccer in the national team’s history.

Japan thrashed Oman 3-0 to open the final qualifying round on June 3 before destroying Jordan 6-0 five days later, with an acknowledgement of the opposition’s weakness not enough to take the shine off two displays of devastating power. The movement, speed, precision and confidence approached levels that would trouble any team at the finals in Brazil, and although that standard dipped understandably in an eventful 1-1 draw with Australia, Iraq will surely have no answer should everything click into place next Tuesday.

The timing of the match may work against Japan’s favor, however, with the European-based players still feeling their way into the new season and Olympians such as Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai yet to recover fully from their exertions in London. Those factors made for a predictably stilted outing in last month’s friendly draw with Venezuela, but Thursday’s game against the UAE should help oil the wheels ahead of the return of a familiar face leading Iraq out at Saitama Stadium.

Much has changed since Zico sat on the opposite bench during his stint as Japan manager from 2002 to 2006, but his reappearance is a timely reminder that early promise does not always evolve into something more substantial. The Brazilian led Japan to the 2004 Asian Cup title before securing safe passage to the World Cup two years later, but not even a squad featuring Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono could prevent a dismal first-round exit and a sense of wasted opportunity in Germany.

Zaccheroni’s current lineup is blessed with similar talent, and the Italian must be heartened to see Shinji Kagawa settling in with such understated efficiency after his landmark summer transfer to Manchester United. The manager would surely love to see Keisuke Honda moving in the same Premier League circles, but after outshining Kagawa with four goals and a string of utterly dominating performances in the June qualifiers, the CSKA Moscow man’s value to the team is beyond doubt.

For all Japan’s attacking strength, however, it is in defense where Zaccheroni must pay the most attention. Atsuto Uchida, Yuzo Kurihara and Yasuyuki Konno will all miss the Iraq game through suspension, and experienced replacements are thin on the ground with only Yuto Nagatomo and Yuichi Komano having more than 20 caps to their name.

That could prove significant against an Iraq team that won the Asian Cup as recently as 2007, but in truth Japan should still have enough quality to take the three points that would all but guarantee a place in Brazil.

From there, anything seems possible.