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Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Nothing holding Japan back against Togo


Two wins and eight goals might not sound like a false start to Japan's October three-match series, but Wednesday's friendly against Togo will be the first and last chance manager Takeshi Okada has to really let go of the hand brake.

Andrew McKirdy

Circumstances have conspired to leave the national team's triple-header against Hong Kong, Scotland and the West Africans scrambling for relevance. The typhoon that put last Thursday's Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong in doubt did not help, but it was the withdrawal of 10 players from Scotland's squad that really threw a wrench in Okada's plans.

The manager had intended to spare his best players the near formality of securing a win against Hong Kong in favor of a more valuable test against the Scots two days later. But when George Burley arrived in Yokohama with a skeleton crew, Okada took evasive action.

Judging that a friendly against an anonymous Scotland was no longer worth risking three Asian Cup qualifying points for, Okada sent his first-choice lineup out against Hong Kong. Under the circumstances it was the right thing to do, but it also significantly compromised the worth of both games.

An abysmal Hong Kong was no match for Shunsuke Nakamura, Makoto Hasebe and the rest, and although Japan won 6-0, it could have been more. Okada is unlikely to have gleaned much from the match that he did not already know, and the consequences did not end there.

Scotland's team might have been weaker than originally advertised, but it was still stronger than Hong Kong's. And so Japan, shorn of the key men who had played two days earlier, struggled to find the imagination to break down a well-organized Scottish defense before a late own-goal finally paved the way for a 2-0 win.

Of course there were bright spots. Junichi Inamoto showed he is fit and a viable option in defensive midfield, while Keisuke Honda, Takayuki Morimoto and Naohiro Ishikawa all showed flashes of talent in an otherwise drab 90 minutes.

Had a Nakamura or a Hasebe been on the pitch, however, the fringe players and newcomers may well have done even better.

But that opportunity has not been completely lost. Wednesday's match against Togo offers Okada the chance to spice his strongest team with the players that caught the eye on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see what Morimoto can do feeding off the silver service of a first-choice midfield.

Togo, of course, is no world powerhouse, and the Africans arrive having been eliminated from World Cup contention with a 3-0 defeat to Cameroon on Saturday.

Early qualification for Asian teams while the rest of the world is still fighting for places in South Africa was always going to make scheduling October friendlies a tricky proposition, but now Okada has one last chance to take something tangible from the series.

With all the obstacles of the previous week out of the way, it is finally time to let his players off the leash.



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