Archive for May, 2014


Regulars feeling irregular

The condition of eight of Alberto Zaccheroni’s trusted lieutenants is in doubt as the World Cup finals approach. Can they recover in time for the big kick off, or will the Italian need to tinker with his starting line-up…? (日本語版はこちらです:(

Football Channel,  May 29th, 2014

They say a change is as good as a rest, and Alberto Zaccheroni will certainly be hoping that’s true as he makes his final preparations for the World Cup. The Italian is in a slightly odd position as the competition edges closer, with expectations for the team high but concerns about the condition of an alarming number of key players also taking up a lot of column inches.

The Samurai Blue have undoubtedly developed under the 61-year-old’s watchful eye since South Africa 2010, and the core of the squad have won the 2011 Asian Cup, earned experience and plaudits (if not any points) at the 2013 Confederations Cup, and shown they can mix it with the big boys away from home in last year’s friendlies against Holland (2-2) and Belgium (a 3-2 win).

The squad this time around looks better, on paper at least, than that which travelled to South Africa and, again on paper, the opponents waiting for them in Brazil look slightly less daunting than those gathered in Group E last time out. Holland, Denmark, and Cameroon offered a vastly experienced and formidable challenge in 2010 and having emerged from those clashes with six points Japan look more than capable of beating any or all of Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Greece.

As one colleague recently observed, however, with this team it wouldn’t be surprising to see them lose to any or all of them either – for every draw with Holland or win over Belgium there has been a defeat to Serbia or Belarus.

Added to concerns about the inconsistency of the side is the fact that many core members of the team are in far from peak form as they head into the biggest competition of their lives.

Maya Yoshida, for instance, has not played since he scored and completed 90 minutes in a 3-1 defeat to West Ham United on February 22nd, and only returned to training for Southampton at the start of May. Likewise Atsuto Uchida hasn’t played for Schalke since February 9th, and with full-backs vital to the success of this team his fitness concerns are a major worry.

Will all the regular starters be lining up against Cote d'Ivoire on June 14th?

Yoshida’s regular partner at centre-back, Yasuyuki Konno, meanwhile, has barely featured in that position all season for his side Gamba Osaka, where Kenta Hasegawa has more often than not chosen him in a holding midfield role. That’s the position where Yasuhito Endo has been a fixture for the national team for longer than most can remember, but Hasegawa has had other ideas this year and Japan’s record cap holder has popped up in a variety of positions – including, a little bizarrely, at centre forward – failing to perform to his usual ability in any of them.

Zaccheroni has usually paired Endo with Makoto Hasebe, but the captain has himself only just recovered from a long injury lay-off and spoke upon his arrival back in Japan about treating the build-up to the finals like pre-season. The importance of playing for 90 minutes in order to obtain true match fitness was also discussed, and that is something that Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda haven’t experienced much at their clubs in 2014.

Yoichiro Kakitani, on the other hand, may have been wishing for a little time out of the media glare in the build-up to the finals but has been offered nowhere to hide, featuring in all 14 of Cerezo Osaka’s J.League games but scoring just once as Ranko Popovic’s side has spectacularly failed to match the pre-season expectations heaped upon them.

All in all that is eight of the first choice line-up struggling for form, fitness or both, and “switching” (切り替え) has been the buzzword for many of the players as they completed their J.League duties or began training with the national team over the last couple of weeks..

The bulk of Zaccheroni’s work looks like it will need to be carried out before the tournament begins, then, as he tries to improve the mood and physical condition of his players. If they can’t shake off the fug in time for the opener against Cote d’Ivoire on June 14th then the coach may very well have to make some changes of his own, and the starting eleven taking to the field in Recife could look quite different to that which secured the Samurai Blue’s passage to Brazil.


Pair expected to kick-start Samurai Blue

The final preparations are now underway for the World Cup finals, and after Japan’s 1-0 win over Cyprus on Tuesday night I gathered some thoughts on the team’s condition from those  heading to Brazil…

The Japan News, Thursday 29th May, 2014

SAITAMA—Alberto Zaccheroni insists Japan will play proactively at the upcoming World Cup finals, and is unwavering in his belief that Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are vital cogs in his attacking machine.

Neither player enjoyed the past season at their respective clubs, with Honda struggling to settle at AC Milan and Kagawa having endured a torrid spell at Manchester United, where he was frozen out for long periods.

Both lasted the entirety of Japan’s 1-0 win over Cyprus at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday night, though, with Kagawa claiming the assist for Atsuto Uchida’s match-winning goal just before halftime.

“Honda and Kagawa played 90 minutes because they haven’t played much at their clubs and need to play these games to help them prepare for the World Cup,” Zaccheroni said after the match, the team’s last on home soil before it steps up its preparations with friendlies against Costa Rica and Zambia in Florida next week.

“It isn’t a secret that I want a team that plays quick, attacking football,” the Italian explained. “This is not a team that is built for physical football, but we just aim to play better than the opponent. This is my basic idea.

“I’m trying to help the team get better, but the goals we set are according to what the team can deliver. However, I have a lot of trust in this team. We go to Brazil to do very well but of course there are the opponents to consider as well.”

Cyprus was certainly a trickier proposition than many expected.

“It’s difficult to play against defensive sides like that, and I think we’ll see more teams like that in the tournament,” Kagawa said after the game. “It was a shame we only scored once and that’s something we need to look at. They had trouble containing us in the penalty area and we should have taken more shots.

Japan v. Cyprus, Tuesday May 27th, 2014

“We still need to improve and be playing at our best heading into the first World Cup match. With that in mind, this win gives us confidence.”

Tuesday’s game was presumed by many to have been a dress rehearsal for Japan’s second group stage game against Greece, but defender Maya Yoshida dismissed that notion.

“Even though they were supposed to be ‘Greece’ they weren’t so I can’t really say anything on that front,” said the Southampton defender, who played the second 45 minutes against Cyprus after having been out injured since February. “Rather than talking about what the opponent was like, it’s more important that we played and won the game today, which is one of the purposes of these three warmups,” he said postmatch.

Shinji Okazaki was similarly pleased with the victory but mindful of the improvement that needs to be made before the Samurai Blue’s opener against Cote d’Ivoire in Recife on June 14th.

“Today was good because we were able to win but there were times when we couldn’t play calmly or make the right decisions,” the Mainz striker said. “I don’t think it was close to what the real World Cup will be like, and as the tournament gets closer it’s vital that we demand more of ourselves.”

While several of his teammates are struggling for form or fitness—as well as Yoshida, captain Makoto Hasebe’s and goalscorer Uchida’s 45-minute cameos constituted part of their ongoing rehabilitation from injury lay-offs—Okazaki is heading into the World Cup on the back of a sparkling Bundesliga season, during which he scored 15 goals.

The 28-year-old was also on the squad for the 2010 finals in South Africa—scoring in the 3-1 group stage win over Denmark—and believes that the foundations are in place for the team to also enjoy success in Brazil.

“We have grown, I feel that in many ways. Last time we fought defensively, and I hope this time we can use that as a base and not change what we have built up so far.”


The Final 23…

The final announcement is fast approaching so for my latest column for Football Channel I tried to predict Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad for the World Cup finals, and made some suggestions of my own… (日本語版はこちらです:

Football Channel,  May 10th, 2014

In a few days Alberto Zaccheroni will announce his squad for the World Cup. The Italian is obviously far better qualified than I am to name the 23 men to represent Japan at their fifth finals, but purely to add to the discussion I thought I’d outline the players I would take if I were in charge of the Samurai Blue.

The squad I expect to see and the squad I would like to see are different things, so to begin with let me list the names I think Zac will be unveiling on Monday afternoon:

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Nishikawa, Shuichi Gonda

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida, Hiroki Sakai, Yasuyuki Konno, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Masahiko Inoha, Yuto Nagatomo, Gotoku Sakai

Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Hajime Hosogai

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yuya Osako, Yohei Toyoda

Zaccheroni has been fairly consistent in his selections since taking over from Takeshi Okada in September 2010, and even on those occasions when he has made slightly left-field call-ups those players – for instance Takashi Usami, Ryo Miyaichi, and Keigo Higashi – haven’t been provided with substantial, or even any, minutes on the pitch to show what they can do. It is therefore hard to see him adapting his approach for the biggest tournament there is – even if there may be the temptation to throw in a surprise (as Sven Goran-Eriksson did with Theo Walcott while England coach in 2006).

For the most part it is hard not to agree with that approach, with the bulk of the squad having matured together over the past four years and won the 2011 Asian Cup. In fact, there are only three changes I would make to the personnel if I were given the opportunity to do so.

Consistency and understanding are vital to success in a major tournament – the margins for error are so fine that a single mistake could ultimately see your team knocked out of the competition – and so the defence needs to have authority, experience, and trust. My back five, then – while not exactly immune to lapses in concentration – would line up largely as it has throughout the qualification process: Eiji Kawashima in goal, Atsuto Uchida at right back, Yasuyuki Konno and Maya Yoshida in the middle, and Yuto Nagatomo – whose displays I think will be key for the team in Brazil – charging up and down the left.

As back up I would stick with Shusaku Nishikawa and Shuichi Gonda in goal, as well as the two Sakai’s and Masato Morishige. My final pick in that area would be Daisuke Nasu of Urawa Reds though. I feel Nasu could comfortably step into the side were injuries to occur, and as well as having a presence and physicality that many Japanese centre-backs lack, he would also provide some much-needed aerial strength to deal with assaults by more direct opponents – as well as posing a considerable threat himself in the opposition penalty area.

Japan scarves at a qualifier for Brazil 2014

As far as the four defensive-midfielders go I wouldn’t change any of the four players listed above, starting with Hasebe and Yamaguchi and keeping Endo and Hosogai in reserve.

The second line behind the lone striker essentially picks itself, with the free-scoring Shinji Okazaki in the form of his career, Keisuke Honda the heartbeat of the team, and Shinji Kagawa, despite having had a dismal season at Old Trafford, still one of the finest players Japan has to offer. Manabu Saito would provide a wonderful option to throw on if a goal were needed with 15 minutes to go – his confidence on the ball and desire and ability to run at defenders is unrivalled in the Japanese game – as would Masato Kudo. The Kashiwa Reysol man can play in any of the three positions behind the centre-forward – as well as being able to lead the line too – and he has outstanding positional awareness and a real killer instinct in front of goal.

He would also have to make do with a place on the bench though as I would fill the sole striking berth with Yoshito Okubo. Yoichiro Kakitani is the more complete player, and when on form the combination play that he, Okazaki, Honda, and Kagawa are capable of would cause headaches for the best defenders in the world but at the moment he is not at the peak of his powers.

Finding a rhythm and generating momentum is key at a World Cup finals, and throwing in Okubo – a player whose confidence is still soaring after finishing last season as top-scorer in J1 and having continued to find the net in 2014 – as a bit of a wild card could act as the positive spark to ignite the team. In the same way that defenders cannot afford a single slip-up in tournament football strikers need to take advantage of any chances that come their way – against the best sides there may only be one – and on current form I would prefer to have Okubo latching onto the through-balls than Cerezo’s No.8. Kakitani isn’t a bad substitute to have at your disposal though.

As well as knowing where the net is Okubo is also fantastic at harrying opposing defenders and never shies away from putting his foot in – in a recent interview Shimizu S-Pulse’s Calvin Jong-a-pin told me that Okubo is the player he’s been most impressed with in his three years in the J.League – and Japan need a few more players with a bit of edge.

With that in mind the final spot in my team would go to Yohei Toyoda, a proper ‘English-style’ centre-forward, almost in the mould of Alan Shearer, who scores consistently, poses an aerial threat and, similarly to Okubo and Kudo, could also be useful defensively if Japan are hanging on to a result with the minutes counting down. In fact, it is that aspect of his game which gets him the nod ahead of Yuya Osako, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Kengo Kawamata, who I don’t feel quite have the discipline required.

Zaccheroni’s choices will determine how Japan does in Brazil though, and as the competition edges closer I for one am starting to get very excited.

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May 2014