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Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012

Zac ready for new year's challenges


The Japan men's soccer team couldn't have had a better year in 2011, winning the Asian Cup in January and safely reaching the final round of World Cup qualifying with two matches to spare.

News photo
Nothing's easy: Manager Alberto Zaccheroni thinks June could be a difficult month for Shinji Okazaki (right) and his teammates. KYODO PHOTO

It wasn't until a 1-0 defeat to North Korea Nov. 15 in Pyongyang, that Japan lost for the first time under Alberto Zaccheroni, whose unbeaten run stretched to an amazing 16 games.

Zaccheroni, though, believes 2012 could be even better.

"There are a lot of players in Japan with a bright future," he said in an interview with the Tokyo Sportswriters Club. "If they improve at a steady rate, there will be even more depth within the squad.

"We have a lot of options, and we have a number of players who are good enough to be in the first team. It's important to remember that we made it through the third round of qualifying without (Yuto) Nagatomo and (Keisuke) Honda."

The Asian champions will have a relatively quiet first half to the Olympic year, with only two home games in February — against Iceland on the 24th in Osaka and Uzbekistan on the 29th in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture — scheduled through May.

The real action begins in June, when they launch their final qualifying campaign at Saitama on the 3rd, followed by games on the 8th (home) as well as the 12th (away).

Japan warms up twice, on Aug. 15 in Sapporo and on Sept. 7 in Niigata, before hosting another qualifier in Saitama on Sept. 11. Zaccheroni will take the team on a friendly tour to Europe in October before wrapping up the year with an away qualifier on Nov. 14.

Zaccheroni said the three games in June will be tricky, as they come at the tail end of the European season and because Japan will not have played in three months when it takes the pitch on June 3.

The Italian wants to rack up the points early in the final round then spend more time grooming players along the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"The final round starts in June, which is a difficult part of the calendar for us because that's when our players finish their season," Zaccheroni said.

"We will need specific plans for specific situations. The European-based players will be tired after a long season. They will need their rest. How we manage everyone's fitness will be crucial.

"There is a big gap between the Uzbekistan game in February and the start of the final round in June, which is another issue we'll have to deal with.

"A good start to the campaign is very important to us."

Zaccheroni's current squad is largely made up of the players who won Japan a record fourth Asian Cup a year ago in Qatar.

But Zaccheroni said that once the Olympics are out of the way he will start to further integrate the young and the old.

Zaccheroni also said the door will be open to those who helped Takeshi Okada's side reach the second round at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

"I want to give a chance to the younger players who continue to improve," said Zaccheroni. "There are so many promising players in Japan, and (Takashi) Sekizuka has done a great job working with the Olympic team."

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