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Wednesday, June 8, 2005

J. WALKING

Qualification would be the start, not finish, of Zico's work


What a difference a goal makes.

Jeremy Walker

This time last week, the pressure was on Japan and on Zico like never before, going into Friday's World Cup qualifier in Bahrain.

But a perfect away display and a 1-0 victory, courtesy of an excellent goal from Mitsuo Ogasawara, has taken Japan to the brink of qualification for Germany 2006.

Suddenly, everything in the garden is rosy, and the mayhem is about to start in the one-year countdown to the next World Cup.

Japan's performance in Manama was very similar to the display in Muscat last October, when a 1-0 victory over Oman guaranteed first place in the first-round qualifying group.

Showing their experience and professionalism, the Japanese players dominated possession, controlled the game and restricted their opponents to only a handful of half-chances.

Captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto always says that his teammates feel more comfortable playing away from home.

Without 50,000 fans roaring them forward at every opportunity, they can relax and concentrate and play a more patient, methodical game.

This was certainly the case again in Manama, when Zico made all the right calls in terms of selection and formation.

With the unlucky Shinji Ono struck down by injury yet again -- this is surely the reason why such a talented, skillful player is still with Feyenoord rather than in one of Europe's major leagues -- it would have been easy for Zico to select a defensive midfielder in his place, such as Junichi Inamoto or Koji Nakata.

Instead, Zico moved his senior player, Hidetoshi Nakata, into the midfield engine room, and brought in Ogasawara to play a more attacking role alongside Shunsuke Nakamura and behind the lone striker, Atsushi Yanagisawa.

This 3-4-2-1 formation worked smoothly, giving the team balance and width and solidity, but with plenty of opportunity for creativity and individual flair in the last third of the pitch.

This is how the goal came. A rapier pass from Nakata, a flick from Nakamura in the right area of the pitch -- as opposed to a careless, irresponsible one in his own half with Japan defending a 1-0 lead late on at home to Bahrain -- and a trademark Ogasawara strike from the edge of the box.

Even before then, Bahrain had not looked particularly threatening, and, despite a couple of moments of indecision by goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Japan cruised home.

But the nation as a whole should not get too carried away with qualification, should Japan achieve it in Bangkok against North Korea on Wednesday, and start talking about reaching the quarterfinals in Germany next summer.

After all, qualification was only to be expected.

Oman, Singapore and India in the preliminary round; North Korea, Iran and Bahrain in the final round . . . Japan should be dominating these opponents, with the obvious exception of Iran.

Qualification would mark the beginning of Zico's work, not the end.

While most J. League first-division clubs were slogging their way through the Nabisco Cup group stages on Saturday, Yokohama F. Marinos were nowhere to be seen.

Having been eliminated from the Asian Champions League, and not due to enter the Nabisco until the quarterfinals in August, manager Takeshi Okada took his players off to California.

"We wanted to play against a strong team that would press us and be aggressive," said Okada.

"In Europe the season is over, so the clubs are off in June and July, and South America is too far, so our sponsor invited a team from Argentina to play us in Los Angeles. It will be a good experience for the players."

That team is Lanus, and the match took place Monday, with the Argentine side winning 1-0. The major game of the three-match California swing, though, comes on June 8, when Marinos take on Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy.

National team striker Landon Donovan is the Galaxy's brightest star, and, with Okada having already sent home Brazilian forward Adhemar, South Korean Ahn Jung Hwan holding out on signing a new deal, and Tatsuhiko Kubo struggling for fitness, Okada could do worse than check out the availability of the 2002 World Cup star.

He would be a dynamic addition to the J. League.

Although Hamburg coach Thomas Doll describes Naohiro Takahara as an important member of his squad, this does not mean the Japanese striker has made it yet in Germany.

The reason is simple: he's just not scoring enough goals.

Since leaving Jubilo Iwata after the 2002 season, Takahara has notched 12 Bundesliga goals in 2 1/2 years, including seven in the last campaign.

"We are hoping he can score more goals in a year," Doll said, after Hamburg's recent 2-0 victory over Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium.

"The next step is for him to get 12 or 15. That would be nice next season, and the way is open for him to do it. In our opinion his performance will improve."

Takahara recently signed a new three-year deal, taking him through to June 2008, and Doll admits his Japanese forward, known as "Der Sushi Bomber" by the German media, is still learning, on and off the pitch.

"He can understand everything said to him in German, but his temperament is a bit timid and that is why he doesn't talk much.

"But he wants to learn so he books private lessons -- and pays for them himself."

A very different character, then, to one of Doll's former teammates at Lazio: Paul Gascoigne.

"Gazza is still my good friend," said Doll. "We had a lot of fun together."

Player of the Week: National team midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara.

An early candidate for the J. League Player of the Year, the Kashima Antlers schemer continued his fine form by scoring Japan's winner in Bahrain.

Quote of the Week: "We played for those who did not have the opportunity to play. We were a true team."

-- Defender Yuji Nakazawa, summing up the spirit among the players which led to Japan winning 1-0 in Bahrain.



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