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:(http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/05/29/post42271/)

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.

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