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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012
Oman qualifier brings Japan back to reality after European tour
Japan may have enjoyed dining at soccer's top table in prestige friendlies against France and Brazil last month, but with World Cup-qualifying points at stake in next Wednesday's away trip to Oman, Alberto Zaccheroni's side will have to quickly readjust to the realities of Asian competition.
Japan travels to Muscat at the halfway point of the final qualifying round for Brazil 2014 with a five-point lead at the top of Group B, looking for a win that would end the 2012 international season with a place at a fifth consecutive World Cup all but in the bag. Oman was comfortably beaten 3-0 in the home fixture at Saitama Stadium back in June, but Japan has a patchy away record against Middle Eastern teams that could translate into an uncomfortable outing on Wednesday regardless of the sweltering afternoon heat.
The onus will likely be on the visitors to break down a defensive home side, with Oman manager Paul Le Guen aiming to frustrate Japan's attack and make the most of any opportunities to strike on the counter. Le Guen could do worse than show his players a recording of Japan's 1-0 victory over France last month as an example of how to land a sucker punch against stronger opponents, but this time the roles will be reversed with Zaccheroni's men forced to take the creative initiative.
Japan's front line has been depleted by an injury that has ruled out Shinji Kagawa, but Zaccheroni still has enough quality at his disposal to successfully unpick the Omani defense. The manager will be confident that Keisuke Honda, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Shinji Okazaki can shoulder the attacking burden in the Manchester United star's absence, and his decision to recall Hoffenheim's Takashi Usami adds another interesting option to the bench.
Usami seemed to have the world at his feet when he received his first international callup last June shortly before setting off for a season's loan at Bayern Munich, but the 20-year-old found the going tough in Bavaria and fell off Zaccheroni's radar while others made their mark. A change of clubs over the summer has given the former Gamba Osaka attacker the playing time he craved, and Zaccheroni's warning for other bench-bound youngsters not to accept their lot was a telling reminder that Japan's abundance of precocious talent must work hard if it is to blossom into something more substantial.
Such an attitude toward complacency means Zaccheroni is unlikely to underestimate Oman next week, and defeat in Muscat would take the shine off what has undoubtedly been a positive year for the national team. Zaccheroni felt the heat for the first time when a home defeat to Uzbekistan in February followed last November's away loss to North Korea, but the Italian has righted the ship in style with the team touching new heights over the summer in a series of dominating World Cup-qualifying displays.
A historic first-ever win over France then raised the stakes further before a 4-0 loss to Brazil put things in perspective, but Zaccheroni can be satisfied with where his team currently stands and the manager will be looking to wrap up qualification for Brazil 2014 at the earliest possible opportunity.
Wednesday gives him the chance to move one step closer, and his players' ability to get the job done with the minimum of fuss will constitute just as important a test as those offered by France and Brazil last month.
This time, however, the result will be non-negotiable.