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Friday, June 27, 2008
Qualifying round shows talent gap narrowing in Asia
Japan national team manager Takeshi Okada will be aware his seat at Friday's World Cup final Asian qualifying round draw in Kuala Lumpur has not come easy, but he will not be the only man in the room irked by such thoughts.
Japan secured progress to the final phase with a 3-0 win against Thailand in its penultimate game, before clinching first place in the group with a last-minute goal against Bahrain earlier this week.
But qualification has been far from straightforward.
A 1-0 away loss to Bahrain in March put Japan on the back foot going into June's decisive program of fixtures, and a 1-1 draw with Oman in Muscat denied Okada breathing space going into the final two games.
But if Japan has been far from impressive, Okada can console himself with the difficulties fellow heavyweights have faced elsewhere in the region.
Australia, the highest-seeded team in the Asian confederation, looked to have qualification sewn up with two wins and a draw from its opening three matches.
But a 1-0 loss to Iraq at the start of June turned up the heat on manager Pim Verbeek, and although a 3-1 victory in their next match guaranteed the Aussies a place in the final round, a final-game defeat to China exposed further chinks in their armor.
South Korea, a country which has qualified for the previous six tournaments, made heavy weather of a group containing Jordan, Turkmenistan and its neighbor to the north, dropping points and topping the group only on goal difference.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, making up the rest of Asia's "big five" of perennial World Cup attendees, also had problems, and although the region's powerhouses will all be present and correct for the draw in Kuala Lumpur, it has been far from plain sailing.
One explanation could be the shrinking gap in class between the haves and the have-nots, and it is true that strides have been made by those teams yet to appear in the World Cup finals.
Uzbekistan, which progressed along with Saudi Arabia in Group 4, stormed out of the blocks with a 1-0 win over Lebanon and a subsequent 3-0 annihilation of the Saudis.
The Gulf side had its revenge with a 4-0 victory in the final match of the group, but by then the Uzbeks were already home and dry.
Uzbekistan has been knocking on the door of Asia's elite ever since winning the Asian Games tournament in 1994, and was denied its place in the 2006 World Cup playoff against Trinidad and Tobago only through a hideous error by Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida in a vital match against Bahrain.
North Korea is another country which has improved, and the presence of Kawasaki Frontale's Chong Tese, the type of burly frontman that Japan is so sorely lacking, should be enough to make Okada wince should his side be tasked with a visit to Pyongyang.
Given Japan's recent record in the Mideast, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates should also be treated with caution, and Okada will be in no hurry to renew acquaintances with Bahrain either.
But while Asia's lesser lights have raised their game, there is also evidence to suggest the region's powerhouses are in decline.
When Australia finally qualified for the 2006 World Cup after years of falling at the final hurdle, the assumption was that a nation with such a formidable sporting tradition would fit in seamlessly with soccer's high society.
In reality the team was never more than a collection of middle-ranking journeymen with a sprinkling of star names, and now Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell are reaching the end of the road with little fresh talent to replace them.
South Korea was never going to live up to its third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, and although a creditable performance four years later showed it still had something left in the tank, the golden generation is now wearing down to its final few flecks.
Fewer and fewer Iranians now ply their trade in the German Bundesliga, and recent results suggest the Saudis remain as inconsistent as ever.
Then, of course, there is Japan.
The sheer number of players Okada used in the first qualifying round suggests a man not so much spoiled for choice as desperately scrabbling to find the right combination.
If the campaign so far has made anything clear, it is that Japan has lots of good players, but very few that are outstanding. What Okada would give for a Hidetoshi Nakata or a Shinji Ono in his prime.
That is not to say that Japan will not qualify and stake its place at a fourth-consecutive World Cup.
Okada is still in charge of one of the strongest nations in Asia, and there have been some impressive performances this year, notably the home wins over Oman and Cote d'Ivoire.
But the road to South Africa is a long one. If Okada does not keep his wits about him, it could be shorter than he expected.