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Thursday, June 5, 2008
Japan's stylish display against Oman leaves critics little ammunition
If there was a question mark hanging over national team manager Takeshi Okada before Monday's World Cup qualifying match against Oman, his side's comprehensive 3-0 win went a long way toward providing the answers.
Okada's position seemed precarious after a 1-0 defeat to Bahrain in March, and his case was not helped by two mixed performances against Cote d'Ivoire and Paraguay last week that suggested the manager was unsure how to make the most of the cards he has been dealt.
The three points garnered by Monday night's win in Yokohama were reason enough for Okada to feel vindicated, but it was the suitability of each player to the position they were assigned that resonated the most.
Okada has a large pool of talent to draw from, but it is how the manager deploys his players that matters. On Monday night, he got it spot on.
Yasuhito Endo is a brilliant but infuriating player, mixing sublime technique and vision with a tendency to dally in areas of the field that call for urgency and decisiveness.
Under Okada's predecessor Ivica Osim, Endo played in an advanced position where his gifts were lost amid the hurly-burly of penalty box traffic.
Okada liberated the Gamba Osaka man on Monday night by using him as a deep-lying playmaker, and with the space and scope to see the entire field in front of him, Endo looked instantly at home.
But just as the quarterback in football needs blockers to protect him, Endo needs a midfield enforcer to ensure he is not left high and dry in such a vulnerable area of the pitch.
Makoto Hasebe performed this role admirably on Monday night, and while the Wolfsburg player is no Gennaro Gattuso, he tackled tenaciously and covered enough ground to make sure his partner had room to operate. Keita Suzuki or Yasuyuki Konno could slot seamlessly in for Hasebe should Okada decide he needs even more bite in the position, and the formation gives the manager plenty of options with the personnel available to him.
Further forward, Shunsuke Nakamura and Daisuke Matsui gave the Oman defenders a torrid time, and both look assured of their starting places.
Matsui's livewire running and determination to make things happen offered the perfect balance to Nakamura's grace and technique on the opposite flank, and it was no surprise the two players were involved in almost all of Japan's best moves.
Yoshito Okubo worked tirelessly in attack and took his chance for Japan's second goal, but Keiji Tamada's performance as the attacking spearhead will have done little to convince Okada that he is the answer to Japan's striking woes.
The Nagoya Grampus man fluffed several good chances in front of goal, and Okada must be praying his decision to send Naohiro Takahara back to his club to regain his form pays off.
Cutting Takahara from the squad before Monday's game looked a gamble. The Urawa Reds striker remains the one Japanese forward with a nose for goal, even in his current slump, but if Japan can clear the first World Cup qualifying hurdle and welcome a fitter, hungrier Takahara back into the fold, Okada will be justified in his decision.
The lack of striking options has been offset, however, by the goal threat posed by Japan's central defenders. Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka are regular scorers for their club sides, and both had a hand in Monday's goals.
The three-man defense that Okada plumped for against Bahrain seems to have been written off as an aberration, and the manager now has a solid bedrock that can be as effective in attack as it is in defense.
More can be expected of the two fullbacks, but Okada has options there if he feels a change is necessary.
Japan's performance on Monday was impressive, but arriving at this point has not been easy for Okada.
He has tried and discarded players and formations, struggled to escape Osim's shadow, and faced problems calling up Europe-based players to the squad.
With Japan taking on the same opposition in Oman on Saturday, now would seem the ideal time for Okada to take heart from the progress he has made and maintain what he has worked so hard to build up.
No sooner than Hidetoshi Nakata touches down in Japan, the rumor mill cranks into gear.
Nakata, who retired from soccer almost two years ago, is reportedly on the wanted list of English side Manchester City, whose Thai owner Thaksin Shinawatra is said to be keen on persuading the former Japan star to lace up his boots one more time.
Nakata recently returned to Japan ahead of his high-profile charity match on Saturday, and was instantly thrust back in front of TV cameras. Thaksin, who is keen to expand City's brand in Asia, is unlikely to have let this fact pass him by.
But with Nakata's representatives expressing surprise at the news, it seems Thaksin has about as much chance of signing the former Japan midfielder as he does sumo wrestler Asashoryu.
Who knows — looking at the goal the big man scored in a charity match with Nakata in Mongolia last year, Thaksin might even be able to shift a few replica shirts in Ulan Baator.