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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Japan must beware at scene of biggest nightmare


The "Agony of Doha" — where Japan conceded a last-minute goal to Iraq to miss out on qualification for the 1994 World Cup — is indelibly burned on Japanese soccer's consciousness.

Andrew McKirdy

As the national team returns to the city for the first time, for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Qatar, the wound must feel as fresh as ever.

Takeshi Okada's side warmed up for the match with a friendly against Syria in Kobe last week, and although the 3-1 win was comfortable overall, the final 10 minutes were anything but.

Mohamad Alzino's 78th-minute penalty sparked a revival from the Syrians that forced Japan onto the back foot, and although a flurry of substitutions prior to the goal had altered Japan's lineup beyond recognition, the late comeback was worryingly familiar.

Of the eight goals Japan has conceded in its last five games, six have come inside the final 15 minutes.

Two of these came within the last three minutes of a World Cup qualifier against Bahrain in September, a match in which Okada's side was apparently cruising toward a 3-0 victory.

Bahrain's late efforts ultimately failed to stop Japan from taking all three points, but the seeds of doubt they planted now appear to be bearing fruit.

Such lapses of concentration are unlikely to go unpunished again, and in Sebastian Quintana, Qatar has a predatory striker who will need no second invitation. The naturalized Uruguayan scored an 88th-minute equalizer against Japan in a 1-1 draw at the Asian Cup last year, and preventing a repeat must be foremost in Okada's mind.

The task of defending in Doha will be made all the more difficult by the absence through injury of center-back stalwart Yuji Nakazawa and first-choice goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki.

But while the Syria game may not have provided the toughest rehearsal for Okada's side, it did offer the coach's bit-part players a useful audition for a leading role.

With Europe-based personnel and Gamba Osaka's Asian Champions League-winners all missing, the onus was on the team's lesser lights to take greater responsibility. Yuto Nagatomo, for one, did exactly that.

The FC Tokyo left-back has been in and out of the lineup since making an impressive debut against Cote d'Ivoire in May, but his performances have been inconsistent since then and have been eclipsed by the form of Atsuto Uchida on the opposite flank.

Nagatomo was at the heart of all Japan's best moves in Kobe, however, scoring the opening goal and wreaking havoc with his lung-bursting runs down the line.

Shuhei Terada looked an able deputy for Nakazawa, while Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi — the most experienced player in the squad — is as reliable a backup as Okada could wish for.

Keiji Tamada was another who impressed, producing a clinical finish for Japan's second goal and looking sharp and busy in attack.

Tamada has been Okada's first-choice striker since his return to the national team fold in March, but that privileged position has often looked more to do with the paucity of striking options than anything else.

But to say that Tamada is merely the best of a bad bunch would be to ignore the Nagoya Grampus man's fine form this autumn. His performance against Syria was the latest in a string of encouraging displays for club and country, and two goals in his last two international appearances is not to be sniffed at in the current climate.

For all that Japan's lesser lights impressed last week, however, it is the participation of the team's biggest name that will hold the key in Qatar.

Shunsuke Nakamura initially looked like he would play no part after suffering a knee injury with Celtic, but the playmaker defied medical opinion to return to the Glasgow club's starting lineup for a 3-0 win over Kilmarnock last week.

A knock he picked up in the following game clouds the issue, but Nakamura seems determined to take part on Wednesday whatever the consequences.

Whether the Celtic man plays or not, there is no reason why Japan should not be able to take all three points and establish a serious foothold toward a place in South Africa. Qatar is a reasonable team, but has dropped off the qualifying pace after a promising start to the campaign.

But if Japan has learned anything from its recent matches, it must be that nothing can be achieved without maintaining concentration until the final whistle. And in Doha, of all places, that is a lesson worth bearing in mind.



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