Things are looking very good for Japan with regards to qualification for Brazil 2014. There’s always room for improvement, though…
The Samurai Blue are already in Brazil.
Ten points from their first four games see the side sitting pretty six points clear at the top of Group B, and with nobody else in the group looking likely to string together a run of results to challenge them, the JFA can start to get its preparations in place for the ultimate festival of football.
However, while the unbeaten start to qualification was maintained with the 1-0 win over Iraq, that game and the preceding Kirin Cup non-event against UAE in Niigata did raise a few questions.
After a Keisuke Honda-inspired side had demolished Oman and Jordan and picked up an ultimately satisfactory point in Australia, optimism was rife amongst Japanese football fans back in June.
Just one goal conceded from a harshly-awarded penalty, 10 goals scored and a team playing with freedom and attacking abandon to excite the crowd and strike fear into opponents, there was much excitement around Zac Japan.
Three months on and things appear to have levelled out somewhat.
The Kirin Cup is always a fairly dour event, with a mediocre team sending their second-string to Japan for a bit of sightseeing and half-hearted kickabout, so it is always with caution that assumptions should be drawn from those games.
However, this time around all eyes were on Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa; could they play together in the same team?
That question was, of course, redundant to an extent with the pair having helped Japan to Asian Cup success in 2011 and combined just fine in June’s opening three qualifiers.
Since then Kagawa had completed his transfer to Manchester United though, where he had, somewhat surprisingly, been installed in the coveted spot just behind the striker – a role he claimed to also want for the national team but which was held by Honda.
Alberto Zaccheroni made it clear that he didn’t foresee that changing any time soon, so Kagawa lined up on the left as usual, with Honda pulling the strings behind Mike Havenaar.
Things started brightly enough with the two combining on a couple of occasions that highlighted their quick thinking and equally clinical execution, but once UAE had settled the pair’s threat was nullified and they were both withdrawn at half-time.
Again, not too much should be read into that – key players are usually rested in meaningless friendlies – but there is the slight suggestion that a Gerrard-Lampard problem could be in the offing.
The English midfielders are two of the best players of their generation but they have never been able to co-exist for their country. As the key men in the heart of midfield for their respective clubs they both possess a desire to take control of the game, but when paired together for the Three Lions that has frequently seen them treading on each other’s toes.
There was sadly not a chance to see how Kagawa and Honda got on in competitive action, with the former missing the Iraq game with a back injury, but if he maintains his early form for the Red Devils and continues to covet the key playmaker role for Japan, too, then the Honda-Kagawa axis – which has so much potential – will be well worth keeping an eye on.
Another slight concern was just behind them, in Makoto Hasebe.
The captain was steady enough against UAE and Iraq, but his lack of minutes for Wolfsburg mean he looked far from his usual combative and composed self, and if he can’t start getting regular action soon he may find his place under threat from Hajime Hosogai.
I also still have slight concerns about the lack of variety in Japan’s play, and a glance at the substitutes for the Iraq game didn’t offer too many players who could offer something different to those already on the pitch.
This is nitpicking though, and there were also positives to take from the games – not least the great form of Eiji Kawashima and the ever-impressive Yuto Nagatomo, who seems to be getting better and better and linked up extremely promisingly with the equally exciting Hiroshi Kiyotake.
And, with the pressure pretty much off for the next four games, Zac has plenty of time to iron out any creases.