The warm-ups, auditions and dry-runs are over. Japan managed to build on their uninspiring start to 2010 by losing each of their 3 World Cup preparation matches against South Korea, England and Cote D’Ivoire. Confidence in coach Takeshi Okada has reached an all-time low, the team still look unable to score (at the right end anyway) and Yasuyuki Konno, having seemingly established himself at right-back after workmanlike performances against England and Cote D’Ivoire, is now looking likely to be out for at least the Cameroon game. On the face of it things don’t look too good do they?
Mr. Okada recently stated that he deliberately wanted his charges to face tough opposition immediately prior to the tournament though, something assistant coach of the national team, Tsutomu Ogura, also stressed when I spoke to him at a game earlier in the season.
The gist of both of their arguments seems to be that it is better to gain an understanding of your weaknesses and limitations by being tested ahead of the finals than it is to build a false sense of optimism by beating the likes of, for example, Malta (as Japan did before their resoundingly disappointing appearance at the World Cup in Germany in 2006).
While it would have been nice to gain some form of positive result from the friendlies, this logic does seem to make sense and it is unlikely that Japan will encounter too many surprises in Group E now. They can expect plenty of long, high balls to be aimed in their direction and for opposing teams to look to get as many men behind the ball as quickly as possible when Japan are in possession, content to leave the likes of Endo and Hasebe on the ball in their own half. Of course, whether they are able to deal with either of these scenarios by defending with greater resolution and taking a few more risks when attacking is still largely up for debate.
Also, while three defeats, six goals conceded and just one scored does not make for optimistic reading, closer scrutiny numbs the pain a little. Of the six goals against, half were own-goals and one was a penalty. While the lack of firepower is of greater concern, it should be taken into account that multiple substitutions were carried out in each of the matches – something which always disrupts the flow of the game. The way in which Japan play best is significantly hampered by such interruptions, and it has been difficult for their main attacking threats – Keisuke Honda, Takayuki Morimoto and Shinji Okazaki – to get fully into their stride as a result. I am hopeful that, once the tournament is upon us and the best XI are out there for the distance, the team will be more able to shift through the gears.
Of course, this may well be no more than wishful thinking and everybody has their ten yen to throw into the discussion. As far as I’m concerned there is absolutely no point going into the biggest tournament in the world having already convinced yourself that your team is going to lose though. Get the beers in, get the hinomaru out and let’s see what happens on the only place that really matters; the pitch.