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Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Questions linger after fourth-place finish

HANOI — Ivica Osim has a tough sell on his hands as he tries to explain Japan's disappointing fourth-place finish at the Asian Cup finals.

James Mulligan

The Bosnian coach strongly believes the national team is heading in the right direction and says the team is playing better football than at any stage under previous coaches Zico and Philippe Troussier. Unfortunately for Osim, both of those coaches did what he couldn't do: lead Japan to Asian Cup glory. Troussier in 2000 and Zico three years ago.

News photo
Japan manager Ivica Osim instructs his players during Japan's third-place match against S. Korea at the Asian Cup at Jaka Baring stadium on Saturday. AP PHOTO

The Japanese did indeed play some very attractive football during the finals. At times, they were the most pleasing to watch of any team. They dominated Australia throughout their last-eight match and looked impressive for much of the semifinal loss to Saudi Arabia and third-place playoff defeat to South Korea.

Even so, the failings in those three games were also evident — not least that they lost the last two.

Luck can play a large part in these tournaments and Osim has been quick to point out Japan's lack of it at the finals.

Still, no matter how attractive the football played by the Japanese and how unlucky they were, a number of questions have been raised in regard to the future of the national team if as expected Osim continues as coach. Soccer Scene attempts to gives some answers in a two-part column:

Why does Osim show such brazen favoritism toward JEF United Chiba players?

The imbalance of JEF players in the squad may be because Osim, former coach of the Chiba side, knows he can rely on them to quickly understand what he wants in training — thus helping the other players pick things up — and also when introduced as substitutes.

Osim is clearly biased toward JEF, a club hardly prospering in J1 under Ivica's son Amar Osim. The Chiba side's relegation is the only thing that could force Ivica's hand, as even he couldn't get away with picking players from J2. Could he?

What is the point of Naotake Hanyu?

Very little at international level. JEF midfielder Hanyu does not have the attributes to play international football. He is too small (at 167 cm nearly 10 cm shorter than the "strapping" Shunsuke Nakamura), too slight and lacks any sort of pace to make up for these shortcomings.

In training, he resembled a young player getting a taste of the big time (a la Theo Walcott for England). He looked even more out of place in the actual matches. He came on as substitute in five out of six matches and did next to nothing.

The thing is, Hanyu is not a young, raw talent. He is 27 years old, which is old enough to not blubber inconsolably after seeing your penalty saved in the shootout against South Korea. Hanyu needs to go.

Why does Osim continue to have faith in Seiichiro Maki?

The JEF connection again is the only logical explanation for Maki's continued presence in the first XI. He scored two goals against Vietnam and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the tournament. Osim wavered on occasion and didn't select the forward, most notably in the first game against Qatar, but added a JEF midfielder, Satoru Yamagishi, in his place instead of another out-and-out striker.

Hisato Sato, whenever he came on as substitute, looked much more dangerous and is as close to a natural goal scorer as Japan possesses. There is absolutely no contest: Sato should be picked ahead of Maki.

What should Osim do with Shunsuke Nakamura?

The Celtic playmaker had a hot and cold tournament. He played well against Australia, but this was against players lacking the pace of some of the other opponents. Against the lightning quick Saudis, Nakamura was overrun time and again, and the game passed him by.

At the international level, Nakamura, in general, hasn't got the pace or power to dictate at the center of the park. Without wanting to compare the two in the slightest in terms of the type of player they are, Nakamura could perhaps take on a variation of the role David Beckham has played on occasion for England and, recently, Real Madrid: a left midfielder utilizing his long, precision-like passing and set-piece prowess, complemented by a overlapping, speedy left full back. This would allow for someone with a more physical presence in the center of the park.

Why does Osim continue to play Yuichi Komano out of position?

The Sanfrecce Hiroshima full back is one of the most accomplished players for Japan, but his talents are woefully misplaced at left back. Akira Kaji on the right is solid enough, but doesn't give Japan a cutting edge going forward. It is not as though Japan is lacking good left-sided defenders. One solution for the future is for FC Red Bull Salzburg's Alex Santos to come back to take up his old position on the left, allowing Komano to wreak havoc on the right.

In Part II tomorrow: How can Osim further utilize the strengths of Keita Suzuki? Who is good enough to step up or back in to the national team first XI? Why can't Japan shoot? And more. . .

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