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Monday, Dec. 7, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Japan's World Cup group difficult, but not impossible


The World Cup draw could certainly have been kinder to Japan, but that is not to say Takeshi Okada's side is guaranteed to fall at the first hurdle next summer.

Andrew McKirdy

Japan was grouped with the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in Friday's draw in Cape Town, at first glance putting a serious crimp on the manager's ambitions of escaping the first round, let alone reaching the semifinals.

Yet there is no need for panic. While Okada's men could quite conceivably lose all three games, there is also no reason why they should not be able to rack up the points they need to progress.

The most obvious barrier to achieving this is the Netherlands. The Dutch must be considered serious contenders to win their first world title, and gave Japan a first-hand demonstration of their talents in a 3-0 friendly win in September.

Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were all as influential in that game as their reputations suggest they will be in South Africa. Enforcer Nigel de Jong's crunching tackle on Shunsuke Nakamura, meanwhile, highlighted the need for Okada to find ways to add midfield muscle to his own side's refined technique.

As one of the seeded teams, however, the Dutch could never be anything other than a first-class opponent. The chances of pulling out the minnows of South Africa were always slim, so Okada can at least take solace in avoiding the bigger fish of Brazil and Spain.

Cameroon does not enjoy the same status, but in Samuel Eto'o the Indomitable Lions possess one of the world's undoubted stars. The Internazionale striker will be desperate to make his mark after missing out on Germany 2006, and should be suitably inspired by playing in the first World Cup to be held on African soil.

One man does not make a team, but Cameroon seems to have learned from its past mistakes. Manager Paul Le Guen has been credited for instilling a new atmosphere of professionalism in the squad, insisting that the players enjoy the same standards they are accustomed to with their European clubs after years of ramshackle arrangements.

Denmark also has several players employed at the highest level, with emerging talents such as Daniel Agger, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer complementing old hands like wily forward Jon Dahl Tomasson.

A team that topped a qualifying group containing Portugal and Sweden can hardly be considered lightweights, and the Danes' physical, workmanlike style could throw an uncomfortable wrench in Japan's well-oiled passing game.

But if the opponents have plenty of quality, so too does Japan. There is little to choose between most of the teams appearing in South Africa outside the genuine heavyweights, and no result should be beyond imagination in what is essentially an evenly matched group.

Being drawn from the Asian pot was always going to throw up a difficult challenge, and South Korea and Australia also find themselves with tricky yet negotiable assignments.

But at the World Cup, no one ever said it was going to be easy.



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