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.”


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