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Friday, May 30, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

With trip to 2010 World Cup on line, time for Okada to be assertive


If national team manager Takeshi Okada has learned one thing from his side's recent Kirin Cup matches, it must be to trust his own instincts.

Andrew McKirdy

Okada took over from previous incumbent Ivica Osim when the Bosnian suffered a stroke late last year, giving the new man little time to stamp his own imprint on the side before World Cup qualifying began in February.

Okada pledged to change little from the Osim era for the sake of continuity, but a 1-0 defeat against Bahrain in March prompted a dramatic rethink.

"It might sound selfish, but from now I will do everything my way, in a way that I see fit," Okada said.

"I thought I could gradually change things but I was naive. I should have had the guts to do it my own way from the start.

"I have never said that Osim-san's way of doing things was wrong. I just can't copy what he did.'

Watching Japan put Cote d'Ivoire to the sword last Saturday with an accomplished, industrious performance, it appeared Okada's single-mindedness had paid off.

Gone was the laborious, slow-motion buildup play that characterized the Osim era, replaced with drive and vitality as Daisuke Matsui and Makoto Hasebe's hard running pinned the Africans back, while Yoshito Okubo and Keiji Tamada buzzed around in attack.

But three days later, the strides Okada had made regressed into backward steps.

The team the manager put out against Paraguay in Saitama bore all the hallmarks of his predecessor, and the turgid 0-0 draw that followed came as no surprise.

Kengo Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo are fine players, but the intricate web of passes they weave is too often swatted aside by opponents focused on a more direct route toward goal.

Shunsuke Nakamura's presence is always guaranteed to lift the team, but his success in Scotland has been achieved with more physical players by his side.

It is unlikely Nakamura would have been named Scotland's Player of the Year in 2007 without the snarling figure of Neil Lennon doing his dirty work for him.

With less than a week to go before World Cup qualifying matches resume against Oman on June 2, it seems curious that Okada would make seven changes to the team that beat Cote d'Ivoire.

Okada has used 33 players in his nine matches in charge, but still seems no closer to deciding on his first-choice team.

Nakamura spoke after the Paraguay game about the need to fit into Okada's "team concept," but there is precious little time for the players to do that if the manager keeps switching things around.

If Okada is serious about forging a team in his own image, he must make use of every friendly match to work toward that goal.

One thing the manager has no control over is the chronic shortage of quality strikers at his disposal.

Naohiro Takahara, arguably the only international-class target man in Japan, has suffered such a cataclysmic loss of form since returning to the J. League from Germany at the start of the year that Okada only used him as a second-half substitute against Paraguay.

Seiichiro Maki, Kisho Yano and Yuzo Tashiro are all hard-workers, but none has the killer instinct needed to make the most of the chances that come their way.

That the same can now be said of Takahara is a major problem for Okada.

Tamada and Okubo worked well together against Cote d'Ivoire, but now there are no dry runs left to test whether that partnership can be successfully sustained.

The time for experimentation is over. If Japan fails to proceed from its World Cup qualification group at the end of June, Okada will be all too aware that the JFA will hold him personally responsible.

With such a heavy burden resting on his shoulders, now is the time for the manager to come good on his promise and finally make his mark.

* * * * *

The news that Japan has lost hosting rights to the 2009 and 2010 Club World Cup tournaments is a blow to soccer fans in Japan.

Regardless of the competition's diminished prestige in comparison with the Champions League, it nonetheless offers the Japanese public a chance to see top club sides in more meaningful action than summer tours of Asia.

But facing strong challenges from the United Arab Emirates and Australia, Japan has done well to win hosting rights for the competition in 2011 and 2012.

Japan's history of staging the old Toyota Cup matches between the European and South American club champions does not give it a divine right to host FIFA's revamped version, so maybe a two-year hiatus isn't so much of a disaster after all.



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