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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Win over Yemen gives Okada's plans vital breathing space


Japan's 2-1 win over Yemen on Tuesday night may not have been pretty, but the result could prove invaluable for manager Takeshi Okada's strategy for 2009.

Andrew McKirdy

Okada fielded a virtual "B" team in the 2011 Asian Cup qualifier in Kumamoto, placing his faith in senior fringe players and raw youngsters at the expense of the regulars who have formed the core of his side so far. Only 109 caps had been won by the members of Tuesday's starting lineup — 68 of them by Kengo Nakamura and Yuichi Komano alone.

To choose such an inexperienced team for a match with points at stake may seem risky, but Okada's approach was based in sound logic.

One side effect of the Asian Cup's switch to years immediately following the World Cup is that the qualifying rounds for both tournaments now overlap. Clearly, something has to give.

Of course that does not mean Okada can afford to sacrifice qualification for the Asian Cup in favor of an appearance in South Africa. Both must be achieved, and effectively running two national teams side by side may be the answer.

Bahrain and Hong Kong make up the other two teams in Japan's Asian Cup qualifying group, and with the top two going through, Okada's confidence that a second-string lineup can get the job done seems justified.

As well as alleviating the burden on overworked stalwarts, contesting the Asian Cup matches should benefit just the type of players Okada chose on Tuesday.

Nakamura and Komano have the opportunity to assume the role of leaders after slipping from the first-choice picture, and new members such as Shinji Okazaki and Shuhei Terada can supplement their places with more experience.

Furthermore, Okada can run his eye over untested rookies like Mu Kanazaki and Takashi Inui, and all in an environment where points are at stake and mistakes come at a price.

The young side was not far from finding this out on Tuesday. Tatsuya Tanaka eventually salvaged the win, but failure to do so would have thrown a real wrench in the works.

With Bahrain lying in wait, Okada could have been faced with the same scrap for survival he faced last year after coming unstuck in the opening round of World Cup qualifying fixtures.

This would have forced the manager's hand into overlooking the younger players in favor of tried and trusted personnel, making the luxury of a two-tier team less viable.

That scenario has been averted for the time being, but the new players will nonetheless have to shape up if they want to stay involved.

Although Terada and Kazumichi Takagi looked reasonably solid and Okazaki had his moments, Tanaka was the only player to really give an acceptable account of himself.

The fact that the striker is one of the few who would make Okada's first 11 shows how much work is still to be done.

But for those still hoping to catch the manager's eye, Tuesday's win at least means they will have more chances to impress.



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