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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011

News photo
Safety in numbers: Shinji Kagawa is surrounded by four Jordan players during Japan's opening game of the Asian Cup in Doha on Sunday. AP PHOTO

SOCCER SCENE

Toothless performance shows Zaccheroni flip side of coin


After the euphoria of beating Argentina in his first match as national team manager, Alberto Zaccheroni got a good look at the other face of Japanese soccer on Sunday.

Andrew McKirdy

In their Asian Cup opener in Qatar, Zaccheroni's men needed an injury time equalizer from Maya Yoshida to snatch a 1-1 draw with rank outsider Jordan, salvaging a point from a game where the national team's age-old weakness made a wretched return.

Possession was almost exclusively Japan's against a team ranked 104th in the world, yet it took until the 92nd minute before one of the tournament's most fancied teams got on the scoresheet. Against sides that set out to defend and hit on the counterattack, Zaccheroni is learning that Japan often struggles to find a way through.

Jordan defended with tenacity and intelligence at Qatar Sports Club Stadium, but the Mideast nation's hopes of securing an unlikely win were greatly enhanced by Japan's failure to put them to the test. A largely static attack had neither the invention to create chances nor the ruthlessness to finish them, and a lack of urgency until late in the game suggested a misplaced confidence that a turnaround was simply a matter of time.

Given the relative experience running through Zaccheroni's lineup on Sunday, it is difficult to understand why. Japan has been forced into too many dogfights against stubborn Asian opposition not to know that a win requires effort and determination, but there was precious little of that on show until things really went down to the wire.

Star players Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa played poorly, but they were not the only culprits. Offseason rustiness may have been to blame for the team's sluggish tempo, but there was a general unwillingness to go for the jugular and arguably only full backs Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo and substitute Shinji Okazaki played with any real purpose.

To the team's credit, Yoshida came up with the goods when it mattered most, charging through a packed box to thunder over a header for the equalizer. Given that Syria beat Saudi Arabia later in the day to throw the group wide open, the point could prove vital.

More important than that, however, is the fact that Japan's problems have now been exposed and are there to be learned from. Next opponent Syria is unlikely to adopt a more adventurous approach on Thursday night, and the chance is there to immediately correct what went wrong against Jordan.

Zaccheroni looked like he could barely believe what he was seeing, but at least now he knows what he is dealing with for the rest of the tournament and beyond. Japan may not be a member of the world's elite, but the majority of its matches are against weaker teams who defend in numbers and that will again be the case when the World Cup qualifiers begin at the end of the year.

Then the pressure will be on to get results. For the time being the manager is more concerned with getting his message across, and he will not be happy unless there a marked improvement against Syria.

It is up to the players to show they are fast learners.



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