Hours after Japan’s final warm-up match on home soil ended in a disappointing
2-0 defeat to East Asian rivals South Korea, England enjoyed a straightforward
– if not entirely convincing – 3-1 win over Mexico at Wembley. The two sides
will now continue their World Cup preparations by facing each other for only
the third time ever in Graz, Austria this Sunday.
How are Japan looking ahead of their penultimate pre-tournament
The loss to South Korea wasn’t quite as disastrous as the
embarrassment against Serbia’s ‘B’ team last month, but it wasn’t far off
either. One could only feel sorry for Shinji Okazaki, given his chance at
centre-forward in the absence of Keiji Tamada, and Keisuke Honda, who had
either taken on a free role or was simply forced to run all over the place anyway
just to see the ball. The CSKA Moscow midfielder was singled out on television
after the match for playing with his back to goal too often, but this was just a
symptom and not the real problem. Quite cleverly, Japan’s front four all managed
to appear isolated at the same time. Against athletic opponents, the ‘defensive’
midfield pairing of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe was simply pressed out of
Despite the reservations of a naïve media, the superior status
associated with England makes Sunday’s game an ideal chance for Takeshi Okada
to experiment with a true volante.
The merits of bringing in Junichi Inamoto (or possibly Yuki Abe) at the expense
of Yoshito Okubo have been discussed
in this column before, and while pundits may bemoan a reduced presence up
front, less would surely be more if Japan could hold onto the ball long enough
to develop attacks in the first place. Whether the manager has the balls or
nous to implement such a system,
however, is another matter.
What about England?
In a reversal of Japan’s situation, Fabio Capello is already reasonably happy
with most of his first eleven but needs this friendly – England’s last before
facing the United States in Rustenburg on 12 June – to determine which of
the backups make the final 23. This suggests that the Italian will rotate
his line-up, with recalls for the Chelsea contingent rested last night after
their FA Cup final exploits and perhaps the chance to take a look at players
like Darren Bent, Michael Dawson, and Stephen Warnock.
The one major outstanding issue as far as the World Cup starting places
are concerned is who fills Gareth Barry’s boots should the Manchester City midfielder
fail to recover from his ankle ligament injury. With Michael Carrick fluffing
his audition against Mexico, next in line for a run-out is West Ham United’s
Scott Parker or – whisper it – a return to the perennially underachieving
partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
What approach should Japan adopt in Graz?
First of all, Japan do not need to win this game – a draw would be an
excellent result and even a one-goal defeat should bring more positives than
negatives if Okada’s men can at least get onto the scoresheet.
Capello is certainly one of football’s truly world-class managers but
his formation and the shape of his midfield with England is not especially
complicated. Bringing more numbers into the centre of the park could enable
Japan to play their game – certainly, to a better degree than against South
Korea – as the English search for balance amongst the remaining alternatives in
their squad. The ‘Samurai Blue’ should also look to test the returning John
Terry – whose form with Chelsea this season has been questionable – with pace,
while there may also be opportunities to expose either or both full-backs if Okada’s
attacking players can function as a unit.
How might England damage Japan’s confidence even further?
By contrast, England will come into this friendly both aiming and
expecting to win, and will have observed that Japan in their current 4-2-3-1
formation are easily exploited through pressing and physical football in
general. They could use either the strength of Emile Heskey or the speed of
Jermain Defoe to expose Yuji Nakazawa’s weaknesses in central defence – the Japan
captain may have missed regular partner Marcus Tulio Tanaka yesterday, but his
pace is an increasing problem and he was caught out of position for Park
Ji-Sung’s well-taken opener. Finally, much will also depend on where Capello’s
midfield priorities lie two days before the final World Cup squads need to be
submitted to FIFA.
Predicting the final score?
For Japan’s sake hopefully not, but England to win 2-0 – and possibly by
more if goals come early and the players on the pitch are sufficiently
motivated by uncertainty over places in the 23 or starting XI.
Despite taking the relatively unusual step of announcing his
final squad immediately – instead of a preliminary list of up to thirty
players – Japan coach Takeshi Okada proved last Monday that predicting
the 23 names he would take to the World Cup in South Africa wasn’t all that
difficult if you put your mind to it. The greatest surprise was the selection
of 116-cap (but currently injured) Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi as third-choice
goalkeeper in favour of the inexperienced Shusaku Nishikawa, and while Ryoichi
Maeda (seven goals in 11 J. League appearances this season) might have been a
more popular backup striker than Kisho Yano (no goals in 12), the latter’s
inclusion does make sense if the manager still considers the Keiji
Tamada role key to his starting formation. Shinji Kagawa was unlucky to
miss out too, but Yoshito Okubo is an Okada favourite and Borussia
Dortmund’s new signing is still the most likely of Japan’s seven
reserves to be called upon later in case of injury.
A look at the British newspapers over the past seven days, however,
would suggest that things have not been quite so straightforward for Fabio
Capello and those who are paid to anticipate his every move. Absent – against most
predictions – from the initial English thirty were the likes of Bobby Zamora,
Owen Hargreaves, Stewart Downing, and Gary Neville. In came Leighton Baines,
Stephen Warnock, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, and Adam Johnson, whose
combined international experience at senior level totals just 107 minutes (and
90 of those belong to Baines). Ledley King returns despite chronic knee
problems preventing him from pulling on an England shirt since June 2007.
32-year-old Jamie Carragher comes out of his self-imposed, three-year exile
from international football.
Certainly, few journalists were quick to praise the Italian – as they
suddenly felt the need to remind us he is – for such choices. His squad was ‘worryingly
mediocre’, while the man himself had ‘a
maverick streak’ and deserved to be roundly and lengthily chastised for his
(admittedly untimely) involvement in the Capello Index unveiled 24 hours
previously. Even in the normally mild-mannered Observer, Paul
Wilson accused the England manager of bringing discord and doubt where
there had once been harmony and faith. His colleague, Paul Hayward, wrote on the
same day that Capello was ‘the
Nick Clegg of international management’, which might be considered a
compliment had his sub-headline not served as an instant reminder that Hayward
is only recently transferred from the politically right-leaning Daily Mail.
“The England manager brought promises of off-field
discipline and rigorous selection policy. He has ditched the lot” (Paul
Hayward, The Observer)
It is worth mentioning that equally few writers stated explicitly what
proportion of this vitriol had stemmed from the ultimate inaccuracy of their
own squad predictions – based, supposedly, on ‘suggestions’ from within the
England camp. Certainly, aside from backing a last hurrah for the elder Neville
brother, the negative articles have been notable for their lack of alternative proposals.
A calmer look at the list of names suggests its composition is actually as
suggested by Owen Gibson in the Observer’s sister paper, The Guardian, soon
after its announcement. The inexperienced faces have been justifiably rewarded
for their fine club performances with the chance to impress for England before
the squad is reduced to a final 23. King’s form in defying injury to help
Tottenham Hotspur to fourth place and a potential Champions League spot had
excited many about his World Cup prospects already. Even Carragher, the biggest
surprise, offers an all-too-rare quality as an England defender in that he has
only missed nine of a total 228 Premier League games for Liverpool in the past
six seasons. After a welcome dose of reality that followed the Euro 2008
failure into the early part of Capello’s reign, it seems as if the advent of
the World Cup has restored a familiar air of hyperbole.
That said, it is undeniable that the Capello blueprint is encountering
its first real hiccups at a most inopportune juncture. The tactical
intelligence that balanced the respective qualities of Wayne Rooney and Steven
Gerrard to bring eight consecutive victories (including 4-1 and 5-1 thrashings
of 2008 tormentors Croatia) in the smoothest of qualifying campaigns has now
been threatened by niggling injuries to the former and a worrying lack of form
at Liverpool for the latter. Fitness could prevent both Hargreaves and Gareth
Barry from being the glue that holds the midfield together. Captain Rio
Ferdinand has been a sporadic presence for Manchester United, while disgraced predecessor
John Terry is surely in a minority of one when he opines that he has ‘had
a great season’. Oh, and we only have one fit right-back and we still don’t
know who should play on the right of midfield.
Capello’s list of thirty gives him seven more problems to solve than
Okada as their two sets of charges prepare for home friendlies on Monday with
Mexico and South Korea, respectively, before meeting for only the third ever England-Japan
fixture in Graz the following Sunday. Coming only two days before the squads
need to be finalised and 12 before the main event kicks off in South Africa,
the game promises to provide important answers to the managers on both benches.
Whether or not Takeshi Okada agrees with this column’s
choice of starting members for the opening World Cup match with Cameroon on
14 July, it is probably at least safe to say that none of those eleven will be
disappointed when the Japan coach names his squad of 23 next Monday. In truth, despite
the extensive number of players that might have enjoyed call-ups over the past
twelve months, there appear to be only three or four spots still open to debate
as the clock ticks down toward this final announcement.
Keiji Tamada of Nagoya Grampus may well still be Okada’s number one
choice at centre forward, while starting berths are not an unrealistic target
for midfielders Yuki Abe of Urawa Reds and – now that he is fit and playing
again – Kengo Nakamura of Kawasaki Frontale either. Daisuke Matsui of Grenoble
in France offers a different option in attacking midfield, and is the third of
Japan’s overseas-based players (alongside Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda) to
have been told his place is the squad is ‘not borderline’.
As back-up to starting goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, Eiji Kawashima of
Kawasaki Frontale is surely the sixteenth dead cert on the list, but a
succession of injuries look set to have cost Urawa’s Ryota Tsuzuki his place at
the worst possible time. Shusaku Nishikawa of Sanfrecce Hiroshima just about
stands out among several remaining candidates for third-choice custodian.
Defensive cover has traditionally been provided by the versatile Yuichi
Komano of Jubilo Iwata and Yasuyuki Konno of FC Tokyo, and there seems little
reason or possibility that this situation should change now. Choosing the squad’s
seventh defender is slightly harder – Tokyo right-back Yuhei Tokunaga appears
first in line at present, but either Daiki Iwamasa of Kashima Antlers or Yuzo
Kurihara of Yokohama F Marinos could be given the chance to add to the two caps
they have each accumulated to date if Okada feels he is short of out-and-out
As ever, it is the more attacking berths that present the widest array
of alternatives and, therefore, the greatest scope for differing opinions. My choice
of back-up striker, Takayuki Morimoto (who turns 22 today), has only
recently come into the national team reckoning but his form in Serie A has been
praised highly by the likes of Fabio
Cannavaro and Alexandre
Pato. The Catania youngster would certainly be a more inspired inclusion
than either Kisho Yano or Shinzo Koroki, both of whom struggled to impress in the recent
debacle against Serbia. Shinji Kagawa of Cerezo Osaka is another on the fringes,
but after leading J2 with an incredible 27 goals from midfield last season, he
has taken to the Japanese top flight like a duck to water – netting six times
in ten appearances already – and should be rewarded with a ticket to South
Africa next month.
So, who gets the 23rd and last spot? Midfielders Koji Yamase and Naohiro
Ishikawa look to be outside bets, while forward Sota Hirayama
rarely comes close to justifying the hype that has surrounded his career thus
far. With overseas experience and 46 caps (including nine appearances in
qualifying), Yoshito Okubo of Vissel Kobe appears the likeliest candidate, but
his spells with Real Mallorca and VfL Wolfsburg were disappointing and I have
always struggled to see what compels Okada to select him over last season’s J.
League Player of the Year, Mitsuo Ogasawara.
That said, Japan already have sufficient cover in each of the midfield
roles the versatile Ogasawara might take, and the 31-year-old is therefore
likely to be disappointed once again. Even if starting with just one up front,
a fourth striker in the squad is an absolute must, and my pick would be Ryoichi
Maeda of Jubilo Iwata. Five caps in almost three years suggests the man who
matters may not agree, but last year’s top marksman in J1 has proven again so
far this campaign that – when fit – he just keeps on scoring goals.
Below is the squad that might be announced on Monday if I were the one
sitting next to Mr. Okada as he did so:
Ben Mabley is an English writer and translator proud to share a birthplace with the sport he loves.
Born in Somerset, he graduated with a degree in Japanese Studies from the University of Oxford in 2005, investigating the role of professional football clubs within Japanese society for his undergraduate dissertation. He combines his translation work with the more enjoyable task of writing about football, and is currently compiling a book on his experiences with the hardcore supporters of his local J-League team.
Despite being already 25, a paltry 5’ 7” in height, and not having been a member of a football club for a good three years, Ben still dreams of being discovered as the new Peter Schmeichel. Should that fail, he hopes to make use of his talent to predict with eerie accuracy what English football commentators will say before they have actually opened their mouths.