Japan recently took part in a couple of high-profile friendlies, and they will certainly have learned a lot from the experience…
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the problems some J.League sides have when choosing not to play certain home matches at their own stadium.
For the Japanese national team it may actually be a good idea to play all of their games away from home between now and the 2014 World Cup, however, as the cosiness of playing in a familiar environment may be preventing the most talented collection of players the country has ever seen from reaching its full potential.
The Samurai Blue’s friendly matches are invariably played on home soil, where the players are guaranteed the support of tens-of-thousands of adoring fans regardless of how uninspiring the opposition are or how badly they play.
Alberto Zaccheroni is fully aware that such a routine may soften up his players, and so last week he took them out of their comfort zone for their first games outside of Asia since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, against France and Brazil.
The last time Japan met either of those sides some comprehensive beatings were handed out, and media, fans and players alike were keen to see how far they had come since falling to a 5-0 defeat to France in 2001 and 4-1 humbling at the hands of Brazil at the 2006 World Cup.
For the opening half-an-hour against France in Paris it really didn’t look like much had changed, with the players seemingly thrown off by the change in atmosphere and a little overawed by the opposition.
Although they weathered the storm and grew into the match in the second half – eventually snatching a 1-0 victory that certainly flattered them – the players were far from satisfied with their performance, and justifiably so.
Keisuke Honda, despite not featuring in the match, was characteristically forthright after the game.
“Our performance was just acceptable, nothing more. I was watching and I thought we were intimidated by them in the first half,” he was reported as saying by Kyodo News.
“If all we want to do is reach the quarter-finals at the next World Cup then [the performance against France] will do. But this Japan team, we’re capable of a lot more.”
Shinji Kagawa was of a similar mind.
“We should have shown what we can do right from the first half,” he said. “When you stop to think about it, we didn’t accomplish a great deal on the pitch apart from the result.”
If France had had a striker capable of finding the back of the net then the game could have been as good as over at half-time in Paris, and up against the far deadlier marksmen of the selecao that was exactly what happened once Japan moved on to Wroclaw to take on Brazil.
After a positive start which saw the side stroke the ball around confidently and even create a presentable chance that Honda could only lash straight at Diego Alves, Japan were undone by a potshot from Paulinho after a sloppy header by Atsuto Uchida.
That kind of mistake would probably not lead to a goal in a friendly against Iceland at Ecopa Stadium – or even in a World Cup qualifier against Jordan – but against world class players unforced errors are not permissible.
Once Brazil had the lead they showed little sign of surrendering it, and although the award of the penalty that gifted them their second goal was generous to say the least, Mano Menezes’ men barely needed to move out of second gear for the remainder of the match as they relied on their superior ability and Japan’s all-too-regular unforced errors to cruise to a comprehensive 4-0 victory.
The impact of that loss is very difficult to gauge now. It may come to be regarded as a vital lesson on the road to success at the Brazil World Cup or, alternatively, the point at which Japan’s bubble burst.
Zac certainly has plenty to ponder over the next year and-a-half, and he will have a much clearer idea now which of his players are capable of gracing the biggest stage and which retreat into their shells when playing the very best sides in the world.
There was an advertising hoarding next to the pitch in Poland with the slogan “JapanReady” on it; not yet.