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Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Victory over Australia would give Japan boost


Takeshi Okada faces the biggest test of his second coming as national team manager against Australia on Wednesday night, but there is evidence to suggest the optimistic noises he has been making recently have some justification.

Andrew McKirdy

Not too much can be read into Japan's 5-1 friendly win over Finland this week, coming as it did against a second-string side, but several impressive individual performances have nonetheless strengthened Okada's hand for the game in Yokohama.

For a team that has long struggled to score goals, Shinji Okazaki's brace against the Finns should offer plenty of encouragement. The decisive manner in which he took his chances was so unlike the shilly-shallying that has plagued Japan's game that finding the striker a starting place against Australia must be prominent in Okada's thoughts.

Injury to Tatsuya Tanaka may make this easier, but if the Urawa Reds striker recovers in time, the manager could yet be tempted to sacrifice Keiji Tamada.

Exclusion would be harsh on Tamada after scoring in three successive games at the end of last year, but the Nagoya Grampus man was ineffective in everything he did against Finland, and there will be no room for passengers against the Australians.

Hideo Hashimoto is another who may have played his way into the starting lineup, and the midfielder's steady covering could provide a more useful counterweight to Yasuhito Endo's clever probings than the less-combative Makoto Hasebe.

Okada certainly has options, although the choice he has to make in the goalkeeping department will be less welcome.

With Seigo Narazaki and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi both injured, Okada has to choose between Ryota Tsuzuki and Eiji Kawashima. Neither is as reliable as the two unavailable veterans — Kawashima lacks a certain presence while Tsuzuki's all-around competence is undermined by occasional moments of madness.

The last line of defense is hardly an area where Okada can afford to go into such a game short-handed, but while much has been made of Australia's physical advantage, it is one of the opponent's more diminutive players who will carry the biggest aerial threat.

Tim Cahill has been in outstanding form for Everton recently, responding to his role as an emergency striker with well-taken headed goals against Liverpool and Arsenal last month.

Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka should have little trouble outjumping the former Millwall man, but making sure he does not give them the slip could be more of a problem.

Scott McDonald will also require close attention, but there is no reason why Japan should not be able to find chinks in Australia's armor at the other end.

Lucas Neill is solid but not impregnable, while Craig Moore is now 33 and has been sidetracked by illness.

In truth, Wednesday's game could easily go either way, but defeat would not necessarily spell disaster for either Japan or Australia. Both have made strong starts to the campaign, and with the other teams in the group taking points from each other, it would be a major surprise if both do not make it to South Africa.

But the opportunity to make a decisive charge is there for the taking on Wednesday night. If Okada plays his cards right, it could go a long way toward making sure Japan is first on the plane.



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