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Thursday, May 17, 2012

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Teenage kicks: Ryo Miyaichi is expected to be named in Japan's squad for next Wednesday's friendly against Azerbaijan after impressing on loan for Bolton Wanderers this season. AP

SOCCER SCENE

Zaccheroni needs European contingent to hit ground running


Alberto Zaccheroni may have blotted his copybook with defeats in Japan's last two competitive matches, but the national team manager will only have eyes for the here and now as he begins his preparations for the final round of World Cup qualifiers this week.

Andrew McKirdy

Zaccheroni on Friday names his squad for next Wednesday's warmup friendly against Azerbaijan in Shizuoka, with the Italian set to draw heavily from his Europe-based contingent ahead of next month's qualifiers against Oman, Jordan and Australia. Losses to North Korea and Uzbekistan at the end of the previous round cost Zaccheroni the unbeaten record he had held since taking over in September 2010, but with the majority of his players arriving straight from the end of the European club season, the dynamic this time will be significantly different.

Where Zaccheroni stands to gain most is with the seemingly unstoppable momentum Shinji Kagawa has picked up over the second half of the German league season. The forward was instrumental in helping Borussia Dortmund to its first-ever domestic league-and-cup double, and with Manchester United now leading a host of elite clubs competing for his signature, there could never be a better time to establish himself as Japan's undisputed key player.

Keisuke Honda was the man who filled that role until his career was interrupted by injury last year, but after returning to action with club side CSKA Moscow, the midfielder is now set for his first international appearance in over nine months. Honda will feel he has something to prove having been out of the spotlight for so long, and with the qualifiers providing the perfect shop window for a transfer to a bigger European league, the 25-year-old will be determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Zaccheroni must also decide what to do with teenage attacker Ryo Miyaichi, who was disappointed not to make his debut after being called up for the first time against Uzbekistan in February. Miyaichi's explosive early performances on loan for Bolton Wanderers tailed off slightly as the demands of the Premier League season began to take their toll, but the 19-year-old is nevertheless a rare talent who the manager must be keen to take a look at sooner rather than later.

Strikers, as always, will give the Italian more food for thought, with Tadanari Lee injured and Mike Havenaar not getting as much playing time as he would like at Vitesse Arnhem. Hisato Sato leads the J. League scoring charts with nine goals from 11 games this season, but with Zaccheroni's preferred system favoring a taller target man, a place in the squad may be the best the Sanfrecce Hiroshima player can hope for.

Zaccheroni will, then, be looking for answers in Wednesday's friendly, and with his team having been in cold storage for almost three months since losing to Uzbekistan, it is impossible to predict how smoothly it will function. Intense concentration on the final stages of the European club season has consumed attention during that time, but with a strong start to the World Cup qualifiers imperative, the manager must make sure focus shifts quickly back to the international arena.

There is little Zaccheroni does not already know about his players' capabilities, but where their form, fitness and ability to come together as a team currently stand are the factors that will make the difference.

If everything is in working order, an early claim on a ticket to Brazil is there for the taking.



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