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Monday, Sept. 14, 2009

News photo
A star is born: Kengo Nakamura was Japan's top player during the national team's two recent matches in the Netherlands. AP PHOTO

SOCCER SCENE

Japan shows flaws, mettle in friendlies


National team manager Takeshi Okada was hoping his squad's recent tour of the Netherlands would give him food for thought ahead of the World Cup in South Africa.

Andrew McKirdy

Two games, 10 goals, one 20-minute master class and one five-minute comeback later, Okada got enough to give him indigestion until the first ball is kicked in Johannesburg next June.

Japan's 3-0 loss to the Netherlands on Sept. 7 and subsequent 4-3 win over Ghana last Wednesday came in such frantic circumstances, such queasy lurches from high to low and back again, that perhaps bite-size morsels would be easier to stomach.

Don't panic after conceding the first goal. Asian opponents invariably defend their lead at all costs, but the Dutch are in a different league. Robin van Persie's opener stretched Japan out of shape in search of an equalizer, leaving Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to pounce on the gaps. Japan's fullbacks have stamina, but intelligence and perspective are needed too.

Two up front is a viable option. Shinji Okazaki and Ryoichi Maeda never quite hit it off against Ghana, but it is encouraging that Okada took the plunge in the first place. The number of strike partnerships flourishing in the J. League suggests the 4-4-2 formation is well worth another look.

Don't be intimidated by physical strength. Makoto Hasebe pulled out of two early tackles against Ghana's Michael Essien, but Kengo Nakamura showed soon afterward that it is possible to trump power with technique in the art of dispossessing an opponent.

Shoot, shoot and shoot again. The Japanese tried their luck on several first-half occasions against Ghana. Even if it didn't always come off, at least the chances burned out rather than faded away as a result of one pass too many.

Kengo Nakamura is fast becoming untouchable. The Kawasaki Frontale playmaker was easily Japan's best performer over the two matches, continuing the club form that has made him a firm contender for J. League player of the season. Nakamura has not always been an automatic starter for Okada, but that should all change now.

Yuji Nakazawa is not infallible. The captain looked shockingly stiff at times, and was badly at fault for Asamoah Gyan's second goal for Ghana. Nakazawa's leadership and threat at set-pieces make him one of the first names on Okada's team sheet, but Daiki Iwamasa will feel aggrieved not to have made it onto the pitch after waiting so long for a callup.

Goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki has a capable deputy. Ryota Tsuzuki was caught out by a characteristic moment of madness in the second match, but Eiji Kawashima was an imposing presence against the Netherlands. The Kawasaki Frontale 'keeper could have done better for van Persie's goal, but his raw athleticism impressed.

Junichi Inamoto is not finished yet. The Rennes midfielder made only a cameo appearance against Ghana, but still had time to set up the equalizing goal for Okazaki and score the winner himself. With Makoto Hasebe showing a disturbing tendency to drift out of games, maybe the hero of 2002 will have his shot at glory again.

Stop talking about reaching the final four. The 3-0 loss to the Netherlands alone should be enough to convince Okada to take off his semifinal-tinted spectacles.

Almost every other manager in South Africa will be hoping to survive the group stage and then take each game as it comes.

One loss and one win on the road suggests Japan is capable of doing exactly that.



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