Benefit of the doubt

Despite failing to wrap things up when they had the chance Japan are still essentially in Brazil, so don’t worry…


It was an opportunity missed but Japan’s failure to make sure of their place at the 2014 World Cup against Jordan is far from the end of the world, and it would still take a hugely unlikely sequence of results to prevent them from making it to a fifth straight finals.

However, the fact remains that Zac Japan didn’t deserve to take anything from the below-par showing in Amman, and the performances of several key players do provide some cause for concern.

Legitimate questions can now perhaps be asked about the impact that relegation to J2 with Gamba Osaka has had on the form of Yasuyuki Konno and Yasuhito Endo, with neither covering themselves in glory last Tuesday and both struggling to strike up a productive partnership with Maya Yoshida and Makoto Hasebe, respectively.

As if it needed further reinforcing we now also know just how vital Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo are to the Samurai Blue’s Plan A.

Honda’s presence in the hole behind the striker not only causes opponents headaches as they try to deal with his physical threat and ability to thread defence-splitting passes, but the CSKA Moscow man also provides a key link between midfield and attack, shoring up the spaces in between the lines that were often far too vast in Jordan.

The World Cup is still in Japan's sights

Nagatomo’s absence, too, was glaring, and his rampaging runs forward from left back were sorely missed whenever Japan tried to piece together a way through the resolute Jordanian back line.

All being well both will return in June when Australia visit Saitama though, and while there is much to ponder before then this is certainly not the time to panic.

It is tempting to call for some fresh faces and for Zac to shake things up a bit, but that is rarely productive in international football, where consistency is key.

Consider, for instance, the team that started Japan’s first game in the final round of qualifiers for South Africa 2010: Narazaki; Uchida, Nakazawa, Tulio, Abe; Endo, Hasebe, Matsui, Shunsuke; Tatsuya, Tamada.

That doesn’t differ greatly to the side which lined up against Cameroon for the opening match in Bloemfontein, and despite a far from spectacular qualifying campaign the core of the team remained intact. The centre-backs and central midfielders, in particular, were constant.

The biggest change was Okada’s decision to switch his formation at the last minute, replacing Shunsuke with Keisuke Honda, but at the time Shunuske was not playing for his club – and as the key creative influence for Japan that was understandably a problem. With Honda making waves at CSKA the manager had little choice but to drop the player who until then had been the focal point of the side.

Japan's next chance is against Australia, here in Saitama

Now there is no such need to revamp things, and there aren’t any players on the fringes of the side who you feel would really improve things.

Takashi Inui, for example, was given the chance to start against Canada and did not seize his opportunity. Three times in the first half he failed to convert chances and at the World Cup finals you may only get one.

While the opportunity to fine-tune and decorate a squad with qualification in the bag does have its merits, the lack of truly competitive edge can hinder a side – just consider Brazil’s meek performances as they attempt to prepare to host next year’s tournament with a series of friendlies – and needing to take something from the game against the Socceroos may actually benefit Japan more than being able to coast through it.

From an excitement point of view I’m far from the biggest fan of the predictable nature of the squads Zac selects and his substitutions – Mike Havenaar as the instant go-to-guy is particularly uninspiring – but the Italian is not employed to make me happy, he’s paid to win football matches.

The Jordan game was a setback but as things stand Japan are still in a fantastic position, and Zac is surely entitled to the odd off day. Things are still a lot brighter than they were ahead of the last World Cup, so for now let’s give Zac and the players who have taken Japan to the brink of qualification the benefit of the doubt.


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