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Monday, Oct. 13, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Japan must forget about UAE game with Uzbekistan qualifier looming


If Japan's friendly against the United Arab Emirates was designed to give a confidence boost ahead of this week's World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan, it is difficult to see how it achieved anything but the opposite.

Andrew McKirdy

Japan dominated Thursday's match in Niigata, but it took 72 minutes and an awful lot of wasted chances before Shinji Kagawa finally made the breakthrough, only to see the UAE equalize five minutes later with virtually its only attack of the game.

Takeshi Okada's men then missed several gilt-edged chances to score a late winner, raising more questions than answers ahead of a game against an Uzbek team likely to adopt the same defensive attitude.

The most obvious deficiency on Thursday night was Japan's poor finishing, and although this has long been a problem, this was the worst it has been for some time. Yoshito Okubo was guilty of the most glaring miss when he spooned a shot over the bar from close range in the second half, but his fellow attackers hardly covered themselves in glory.

It must be taken into account that several key players were unavailable due to Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds' Asian Champions League semifinal first leg the previous night. But with Urawa's Tatsuya Tanaka not included for the Uzbekistan match, Okada's striking options will remain the same.

The lack of conviction in front of goal was no real surprise, and there is no easy answer to a conundrum that has plagued Japan for as long as memory serves.

What was far more worrying, however, was the complete breakdown of communication throughout the side. For a team that has played so many games this year, many of Japan's players looked like they were meeting each other for the first time.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in attack, with Okubo, Keiji Tamada and Shinji Okazaki misreading each other's intentions, sending passes to the wrong areas and failing to deliver the right ball at the right time.

It would be harsh to point the finger at Okazaki in his international debut, but it does not bode well that Okubo and Tamada, who have played together regularly this year, hit it off so badly.

The midfield was also off-color, with Shunsuke Nakamura not his usual influential self and Makoto Hasebe and Junichi Inamoto drifting in and out of the game.

One of the few bright spots was another excellent performance from right-back Atsuto Uchida, who is fast becoming one of Japan's most important players.

Okada's decision to ax the experienced Akira Kaji in favor of the 20-year-old looked like a huge gamble in his first match in charge, but Uchida has since developed into one of the team's most potent attacking weapons. The Kashima Antlers man looks capable of playing with distinction for a European club even at such a young age, but it is nonetheless worrying that the best player going forward on Thursday was a defender.

The returning Gamba and Reds players should provide at least some of what was missing, and there are grounds for optimism that Japan will turn in a far more accomplished performance against Uzbekistan.

Yasuhito Endo should add imagination and flair to a midfield that looked short of ideas, and defenders Yuki Abe and Marcus Tulio Tanaka bring quality, stability and a goal threat at set pieces.

That the unavailable players were so badly missed begs the question why Thursday's friendly was organized in the first place, but it is too late now.

Three points in Saitama would go a long way toward establishing a head of steam in Japan's bid for a fourth successive World Cup appearance, but that is unlikely to happen if the performance is as flat as it was in Niigata.

If there are any positives to be drawn from Thursday's match, it can only be that nothing was at stake. This week, there will be no such margin for error.



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