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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012

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Friendly fire: Franck Ribery will provide Japan with a stern test when Alberto Zaccheroni's side takes on France in a friendly at the Stade de France on Friday. AP

SOCCER SCENE

Prestige friendlies provide perfect chance to lay down marker


International friendlies are often looked upon as little more than an irritation in the crowded calender of the modern game, but as Japan prepares to take on France and Brazil over the coming week, national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni is unlikely to concur.

Andrew McKirdy

Japan faces France in Saint-Denis on Friday before traveling to Poland to play Brazil in Wroclaw the following Tuesday, giving Zaccheroni a chance to test his side against the world's best after a steady diet of Asian opposition and uninspiring friendly fodder. Japan has been in impressive form this year with a place at the next World Cup as good as locked up already, but Zaccheroni's ambitions extend further than just making up the numbers in 2014 and the events of the coming week should give a clearer indication of where his team currently stands.

There is certainly no more fitting a place to start than France, and a first return to the Stade de France since Philippe Troussier's side suffered a 5-0 defeat to the then world champions in March 2001. That chastening result was credited for opening Japan's eyes to the scale of the work needed to build a competitive team for the 2002 World Cup on home soil, and although Zaccheroni will be looking for a more positive outcome on Friday, he will hope the occasion proves to be just as enlightening.

The same applies to next Tuesday's meeting with Brazil, with the possibility of a first-ever victory over the five-time World Cup winners adding to the incentive in western Poland. Brazil's lineup will be a strong one with so many players already based in Europe, and even if the 2014 hosts are still feeling their way back from the disappointment of missing gold at the London Olympics, Mano Menezes' team should provide Zaccheroni with the toughest test of his stewardship yet.

Unsurprisingly, Zaccheroni has picked his strongest squad for the tour, with experienced heads making up the bulk of the selection. The manager has, however, handed a recall to attacking midfielder Takashi Inui, and after a blistering start to the new Bundesliga season with Eintracht Frankfurt it will be interesting to see what the former Cerezo Osaka man can bring in his return to the national team.

Given the way Inui and Shinji Kagawa's paths have diverged since they played together at Cerezo from 2008-10, it is easy to forget what a devastating partnership they once formed. But while Inui may have taken a more circuitous route to prominence than his former teammate — playing in the German second division with Bochum before signing with Eintracht this summer — there is no doubting his potential. If Zaccheroni decides to reprise the double act this week, the results could be eyecatching.

Ryo Miyaichi is another who will be hoping to make his mark if given time on the pitch, but Zaccheroni will be more interested in seeing how his established regulars hold up to the challenge. Karim Benzema, Neymar, Franck Ribery, Oscar and a rejuvenated Kaka will be among the opposition players they will have to deal with, and with the Confederations Cup still another eight months away, the opportunity must be grabbed with both hands before the familiarity of Asian competition resumes.

The last time Japan took on a world power in a friendly away from home ended in a 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands in September 2009, but the benefit of that trip became clear when Takeshi Okada's side lost only 1-0 in a closely contested group match against the same opponent at the 2010 World Cup.

Encouraging performances this time round are the priority, but positive results would lay down a marker for the world to see.



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