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January 2011

Minutecast Asian Cup Special 12 – Japan 1-0 Australia final report

30 Jan 2011(Sun)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

2011 AFC Asian Cup final result

Japan 1-0 Australia (after extra time)

Goal: Lee (109)

 

 

It was, in the end, perhaps fitting that the advent of a new era for Japan under Alberto Zaccheroni be crowned with a spectacular goal, deep into extra time, by a substitute of Korean ancestry making only the second appearance of his nascent international career.

 

After 109 minutes of pulsating, yet somehow goalless football, a wicked cross from the ever-industrious Yuto Nagatomo on the left-hand flank found Tadanari Lee unmarked inside the Australian penalty area. The naturalised, fourth-generation Korean-Japanese – who represented South Korea at under-19 level and had only been introduced to this final ten minutes earlier in place of Ryoichi Maeda – turned quickly to smash home an unstoppable left-footed volley past the motionless Mark Schwarzer.

 

The stunned Socceroos continued to display plenty of enterprise, but lacking the necessary resources in front of goal, were unable to muster an equaliser in the short time that remained. Once again, Australia’s assault on their adopted continent had been dramatically ended by Japan, who celebrated the win that confirmed a record fourth Asian Cup success.

 

After Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa had been forced to fly back to Germany with a broken fifth metatarsal, Zaccheroni ultimately opted for Jungo Fujimoto – whose previous involvement in this tournament had totalled one minute – as his replacement in the starting eleven. The choice necessitated a slight reshuffle in midfield, with Shinji Okazaki switching flanks to accommodate Fujimoto on the right.

 

The only other change in personnel from Tuesday’s penalty shootout win over South Korea was a return from suspension for defender Maya Yoshida in place of Daiki Iwamasa. Australia manager Holger Osieck unsurprisingly remained faithful to the line-up that had hammered Uzbekistan 6-0 in the last four.

 

Both sides began the final in positive fashion, generously warming up the 37,174-strong crowd at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha with a series of early attacks and counterattacks. Japan were almost handed the lead in bizarre circumstances after just eight minutes, when Schwarzer caught his studs in the turf attempting a clearance, but Nagatomo’s quick thinking failed to produce the desired result as his long effort sailed over.

 

As the first half developed, it was the Australians who settled into their rhythm more effectively. As Japanese passes went astray with the attacking midfield three lacking their usual fluency, their opponents repeatedly found space on the right for Brett Holman and Luke Wilkshire to test defence and goalkeeper with a series of high crosses.

 

Eiji Kawashima did well to block at near point-blank range when Harry Kewell diverted a goalbound header from Tim Cahill, and the Galatasaray man blasted another attempt into the side netting on the half-hour mark after Cahill had expertly headed back into his path from Lucas Neill’s deep cross.

 

Japan’s best opportunity of the half came six minutes afterwards when Keisuke Honda – later named as the tournament’s MVP – sliced the Australia back four apart with a brilliant pass to Yasuhito Endo. The Gamba Osaka midfielder, however, opted to cut back to an unprepared Maeda, whose first-time shot flew over the crossbar.

 

Australia retained their momentum to begin the second half on the front foot, and Kawashima was highly fortunate to escape when caught embarrassingly off guard by a looping cross from Wilkshire. The ball dropped over the Lierse goalkeeper, off the far post, and then back into the goalframe again after rebounding into Cahill before the Japanese defenders were finally able to clear.

 

The incident provoked a tactical switch from Zaccheroni that immediately restored equilibrium and eventually proved decisive. Iwamasa was brought on for the ineffectual Fujimoto, with Yasuyuki Konno shifted across to left-back, Nagatomo advancing into left midfield, and Okazaki swapping back over to the right.

 

Soon afterwards, the repositioned players fashioned Japan’s best moment to that point, as Nagatomo’s powerful cross misled the Australian defenders and left Okazaki with a low header that spun fractionally wide of the far post.

 

The new defensive pairing of Yoshida and Iwamasa betrayed a lack of communication, however, as both players allowed the ball to bounce only for Kewell to react more quickly and race through on goal. Kawashima stood tall to block with an outstretched right foot.

 

There was another tense moment in the last of the 90 minutes when Atsuto Uchida had to intercept a shot from David Carney following Yoshida’s poor clearance, with neither side curbing their attacking intentions as the game moved into extra time.

 

Brett Emerton hit a side-footed effort narrowly over from 20 yards before combining moments later with fellow substitute Robbie Kruse, only for Kawashima to react well and push the latter’s high header onto the crossbar. In response, Honda saw a powerful effort fly narrowly past Schwarzer’s left-hand post from just outside the penalty area.

 

Four years ago, Japan had needed a penalty shootout to dispose of the Australians, and for all the attractive play it appeared as if a repeat was on the cards until Nagatomo and Lee worked their magic in the fourth minute of the second period of extra time.

 

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Speaking to Japanese television moments after the final whistle, Zaccheroni displayed rare emotion and unconfined joy at an Asian Cup success achieved after just four months and eight matches at the helm.

 

This was a fantastic win and Japan are a fantastic team,” beamed the Italian. “Australia were a really strong side and we had to do extremely well to beat them. Everyone was tired, but we overcame that through fantastic team spirit.

 

“I had every faith that Lee could do something if I brought him on, and he scored a great goal. The strength of this team is that the players starting on the bench can always come on and make a significant contribution.

 

“I want the Japanese people to be proud of their national team – believe me, this team is really good.

 

Goal hero Lee commented “I hadn’t played much throughout this competition, but I always believed I could take the chance if given to me. I’m really pleased to have been a part of it all.”

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 11 – Japan vs. Australia final preview

29 Jan 2011(Sat)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan’s preparations for Saturday’s Asian Cup final against Australia have been rocked by the news that midfielder Shinji Kagawa has been forced to return to Germany after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

 

The injury, sustained late in the second half of the dramatic semi-final with South Korea on Tuesday, comes as a major blow to both club and country with early prognoses suggesting the Borussia Dortmund star could also miss the remainder of the Bundesliga season.

 

Predictably, Friday’s pre-match press conference was dominated by questions over who could possibly replace a player who has risen to the status of national team talisman just six months after missing out on the World Cup squad altogether. While acknowledging the “headache”, however, Samurai Blue boss Alberto Zaccheroni was quick to reemphasise his faith in the backup members available.

 

“It’s very disappointing for the team and for Kagawa himself as well,” said the Italian. “He contributed a lot on the way to the final and he was getting better and better so it’s a real shame. But I know who’s going to replace him; I know him well and I trust him.”

 

Zaccheroni refused to elaborate on his selection, but there would appear to be three strong candidates for the role of Kagawa’s understudy. Yosuke Kashiwagi deputised for the injured Keisuke Honda in the centre of the attacking midfield three for the group stage match with Saudi Arabia, and could either fill in on the left or reprise his earlier role with Honda moving out wide.

 

Jungo Fujimoto is a more natural wide player and was strongly considered to play on the right against the Saudis – with Shinji Okazaki switching flanks – but this idea was abandoned and the new Nagoya Grampus signing has still only made one momentary substitute appearance all competition.

 

The third alternative is defensive midfielder Hajime Hosogai, who scored his first international goal in extra time against South Korea having come off the bench to replace Kagawa. His inclusion would either see Yasuhito Endo pushed further forward or, more radically, a temporary return to the 4-3-3 system used by previous coach Takeshi Okada in South Africa to help cope with the greater physicality of the Australians.

 

The current Japan manager was understandably keener to focus on the positives, having led his side to an Asian Cup final just four months after taking charge.

 

He declared, “I am very satisfied to make the final and I like the way we got here. I give the credit to our players because we had many difficult matches. There are many qualities to our football so it’s difficult to pick one; but maybe it’s the togetherness of this team. The spirit of this team is fantastic. It makes me proud to be in charge.

 

“I tell the players to respect other teams but not be scared of them. I think they understand that and they will have that attitude.”

 

Zaccheroni also described the experience in Qatar as the first step within a long-term plan for his era in charge.

 

“I wanted this team to get more experience here, especially to improve the young players through this competition. The goal is to make a good team for the World Cup.”

 

Kagawa told reporters that he was “extremely upset” as he departed from Doha on Thursday, but added “I believe Japan will still win in my absence. If they continue to play their game and enjoy themselves, they can certainly take victory”.

 

The only other selection question is whether or not Maya Yoshida earns a recall in central defence at the expense of Daiki Iwamasa, after a red card against the host nation in the last eight ruled the VVV Venlo man out of the semi-final. Shinji Okazaki’s participation in training has been limited after suffering from fatigue, but this is not expected to affect his hopes of playing against Australia.

 

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Socceroos boss Holger Osieck watched his charges hammer 10-man Uzbekistan 6-0 in the second semi-final, and has a wealth of experience to draw upon after leading J. League giants Urawa Reds to the Asian Champions League crown in 2007. The German was also assistant manager when his home nation won the World Cup in 1990, and took Canada to a surprise victory in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

 

“Knowledge is one thing but to put it into action is another,” insisted Osieck. “Japan definitely have a strong team; they have a new generation coming up, a lot of talent, and technically very potent players so I expect a challenging game.

 

“I have a very great impression of the Japanese team playing as a unit. Of course Kagawa is a great player, but I think the Japanese coach definitely has another trick up his sleeve.”

 

Australia have the better of the head-to-head record with seven victories to Japan’s five from their 16 matches to date, and came from behind to win 2-1 the last time the teams met in a World Cup qualifying dead rubber in 2009.

 

Their only previous Asian Cup campaign, however, ended in a penalty shootout defeat to Japan at the quarter-final stage, while the Samurai Blue will also be looking for a record fourth continental title in just seven finals appearances.

 

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South Korea survived an Uzbekistan fightback to win the third-place playoff 3-2 and, in doing so, seal qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 10 – Japan 2-2 South Korea (3-0 pens)

26 Jan 2011(Wed)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan recovered from the concession of a dramatic late equaliser in extra time to defeat fierce rivals South Korea 3-0 on penalties and secure their fourth Asian Cup final appearance in the last six editions.

 

Having fought back from a debatable spot-kick decision in the first half to draw level through Ryoichi Maeda, Alberto Zaccheroni’s side appeared to have one foot in Saturday’s showpiece decider when substitute Hajime Hosogai netted on the rebound from a saved Keisuke Honda penalty – itself another cause for heated discussion – in the first period of extra time.

 

But when the Japanese defence failed to clear a crossed free-kick, Korean defender Hwang Jae-Won found room amongst the melee to fire home through a crowd of players with mere seconds remaining before the final whistle.

 

The psychological advantage should have been firmly with the Koreans, not least in light of their 6-5 shootout success over Japan in the third place playoff four years ago. A penalty miss by Yuichi Komano had also put paid to the latter’s World Cup hopes in their second round match against Paraguay in Pretoria last June.

 

Any signs of nerves were immediately extinguished, however, when Honda confidently made up for his earlier miss, before Eiji Kawashima saved to his right from tournament joint top scorer Koo Ja-Cheol.

 

A second stop from Lee Yong-Rae and Hong Jeong-Ho’s failure to find the target altogether meant that Japan could even afford a dreadfully spooned penalty by Yuto Nagatomo, before Yasuyuki Konno stepped up to fire them into the final on his 28th birthday.

 

As anticipated, Zaccheroni handed a first start of the competition to centre-back Daiki Iwamasa in place of the suspended Maya Yoshida. Atsuto Uchida returned from his ban to replace Masahiko Inoha at right-back, while Kawashima continued in goal despite an uncertain performance against Qatar in the last eight.

 

Opposite number Cho Kwang-Rae opted for Cho Yong-Hyung as a defensive replacement for Lee Jung-Soo, who picked up a second yellow card in the quarter-final win over Iran.

 

Japan began the game in confident fashion, passing the ball quickly through the midfield despite intense Korean pressing and winning a succession of corners in the opening exchanges. Shinji Okazaki headed narrowly wide of Jung Sung-Ryong’s goalframe on just six minutes, before forcing the ‘keeper to scramble another header onto the post just after the quarter-hour mark.

 

The spectre of controversy, however, has never been far away whenever Japan have taken the field at this Asian Cup, and a speculative attack from the Koreans ended with the award of a soft penalty at the midway point of the half. Chasing a long ball out of defence, Park Ji-Sung was adjudged to have been unfairly barged by Konno, allowing Ki Sung-Yong to confidently despatch the resultant spot-kick to Kawashima’s right.

 

With the Japanese players initially fazed into impatience, the Taegeuk Warriors seized the initiative to dominate for a ten-minute period in which they repeatedly tested the pairing of Konno and Iwamasa with a variety of both direct and one-touch attacks. It took a moment of inspiration from Honda to help the Samurai Blue break down this momentum with another goal against the run of play.

 

The CSKA Moscow star’s clever footwork allowed Cesena full-back Nagatomo to burst into space with an overlapping run down the left flank, before turning into the Korean penalty area and cutting back for Maeda to slot home his third of the competition.

 

Japan’s number 11 ought to have then put his side in front just before half-time, but blazed horribly over the crossbar when totally free inside the 18-yard box following more good work from Honda.

 

A high-paced, thrilling opening half gradually gave way to a more strategic battle of nerves and wits in the second, as both sets of players began to tire and Zaccheroni’s side struggled to convert the impetus gained from the equaliser into a genuine threat on goal. Cho Kwang-Rae sought to shore up the Korean midfield with a switch to 4-3-3, introducing Hong Jeong-Ho to provide defensive cover in place of forward Ji Dong-Won.

 

The stalemate persisted until the seventh minute of extra time, when referee Khalil Al-Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia awarded Japan a highly controversial penalty for a shove on Okazaki by Hwang Jae-Won – despite the offence clearly taking place two feet outside the area.

 

Honda’s weak, mishit attempt ultimately mattered not; nor the successful follow-up from Hosogai, for Hwang went from villain to hero in the 120th minute only to witness his compatriots succumb to the pressure of the shootout.

 

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A visibly drained Zaccheroni expressed his delight to television reporters at the conclusion of the game.

 

“It was another highly eventful match. Once again, we fell behind – with another penalty – then we conceded again to another free kick. But we have great respect for South Korea so we knew that it would be a difficult test for us.

 

“I am really pleased with my players for handling the pressure despite that late goal. We struggled physically at times but we knew we had to focus on our own technical skills. Whichever team we face in the final will play with a different style again, but we just have to remember to do things our way.”

 

Honda’s assessment was characteristically honest and forthright.

 

“The late goal came because of our own failings, but overcoming that to win on penalties shows we must have at least grown a little bit mentally.

 

“There is no point in getting this far without winning – we want to go back home with the trophy.”

 

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Australia cruised to an easy 6-0 romp over a hugely disappointing Uzbekistan in the late match to seal their place in the final.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 9 – Japan vs. South Korea semi-final preview

25 Jan 2011(Tue)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan side take on fierce rivals South Korea in tonight’s Asian Cup semi-final at the Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha with the emphasis once again placed on their makeshift defence.

 

Despite being the tournament’s top scorers thus far with 11 goals in four matches, the Samurai Blue have struggled with a succession of injuries and suspensions at the back and conceded four times altogether – including falling behind twice in their eventful quarter-final against host nation Qatar last Friday.

 

The manager, however, has rebuffed suggestions that the Koreans should see Japan’s back four as a weakness to exploit as the pair prepare for their first competitive meeting since 2007.

 

“Only two of the four goals scored against us have come in open play,” said Zaccheroni. “And one of those was an own goal. The other two were a penalty and a free kick. I feel satisfied with the performances of our defensive line, which is probably the youngest in the entire tournament.

 

“I am happy that we have scored the most in this competition, but the style we are aiming for is not just attacking. We need to be well balanced to face up to our opponents in the fight. Sometimes you need to think about where you make the defensive line but our aim is always the same, which is to play with bravery.”

 

A red card for centre-back Maya Yoshida against Qatar has further compromised Japanese defensive resources, meaning a likely recall for Kashima Antlers stopper Daiki Iwamasa. The 28-year-old missed the early group matches with a plantaris tendon injury picked up in the Emperor’s Cup on Christmas Day – ironically handing an opportunity to Yoshida in the first place.

 

Zaccheroni confirmed: “When I brought Iwamasa on after the dismissal, he immediately contributed both balance and experience to the team. He is an extremely reliable player and should have no problems taking Yoshida’s place.”

 

The return from suspension of regular first-choice right-back Atsuto Uchida poses a happier selection dilemma for the Italian after replacement Masahiko Inoha followed his debut assist against Saudi Arabia with the winning goal in the last eight.

 

Questions have also been raised over the continued participation of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who was sent off in the group stage against Syria and was partly to blame for both Qatar goals on Friday. Backup Shusaku Nishikawa kept Japan’s only clean sheet so far in the 5-0 rout of the Saudis, but Zaccheroni has refused to be drawn on the issue.

 

“I will apply the same selection criteria for my goalkeeper as I do for the outfield players – namely talent, the harmony of the group, and a desire to improve.”

 

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South Korea boss Cho Kwang-Rae saw his charges taken to extra-time by Iran on Saturday before eventually winning through thanks to a 105th minute goal by substitute Yoon Bit-Garam.

 

“Japan is always a good partner for Korea in terms of developing the level of football between the two countries,” opined Cho in his pre-game press conference. “This match will be the most interesting of the Asian Cup. If our players continue their good development, just as they have in previous games, it will be a good match for us.”

 

Former Kashima defender Lee Jung-Soo will miss out through suspension, meaning a likely recall for the volatile Kwak Tae-Hwi, but the manager confirmed that this should be the only change.

 

Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United will win his 100th international cap, while the Koreans also boast the tournament’s joint top scorer (with four goals) in Koo Ja-Cheol.

 

The Taegeuk Warriors have won 40 of their 73 meetings with Japan, with four wins and four draws in the last ten. A friendly match in Seoul last October ended goalless, while the Koreans won 6-5 on penalties when the pair met in the third-place playoff of the Asian Cup four years ago.

 

However, while Japan are looking for their fourth continental title in the last six tournaments, South Korea have not taken the trophy since winning the first two editions in 1956 and 1960.

 

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First-time semi-finalists Uzbekistan and Australia will face off in tonight’s late match at the Khalifa International Stadium.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 8 – Japan vs. Qatar quarter-final report

22 Jan 2011(Sat)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan once again had to overcome a controversial red card to battle back and seal a thrilling 3-2 victory over host nation Qatar in yesterday’s Asian Cup quarter-final.

 

Having recovered from the concession of an early Sebastian Soria goal to go in level at half-time through Shinji Kagawa, the Samurai Blue suffered a double blow shortly after the hour mark when Maya Yoshida was dismissed for a second bookable offence, and Fabio Cesar scored directly from the resulting free-kick.

 

But Kagawa netted a superb equaliser soon afterwards to set up a rousing finish, and it was his fine footwork that allowed Masahiko Inoha to pounce and fire home the winner in the final minute of the 90.

 

Coach Alberto Zaccheroni was able to name ten of the eleven players that had started Japan’s opening two group matches against Jordan and Syria, with a suspension for Atsuto Uchida handing a first international start to Inoha at right-back. Regular first-choice Eiji Kawashima was given the nod in goal over Shusaku Nishikawa after being suspended for the 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, while Keisuke Honda returned from injury to replace Yosuke Kashiwagi.

 

Roared on by a partisan crowd of nearly 20,000, the Qataris began the game in positive fashion, having clearly been instructed by former Senegal boss Bruno Metsu to target the vulnerabilities of Japan’s makeshift defence with physicality and speed.

 

Their strategy paid almost immediate dividends as Annabi took the lead after just 12 minutes. With Inoha caught behind the defensive line, Soria beat the offside trap to race onto a long pass along the Qatari right flank. Inexplicably allowed room to cut back onto his left foot by a static Yoshida, the Uruguayan-born forward lashed home a low shot through Kawashima at the near post.

 

The Japanese players initially appeared shaken by the goal, lacking composure on the ball and struggling to find space amid constant pressing from their opponents. Gradually, however, they began to find their rhythm, and a spark of inspiration from Honda created the opportunity to draw level.

 

With little room to manoeuvre, the CSKA Moscow midfielder sent a delightful flick into the path of Shinji Okazaki, who lobbed the ball over oncoming goalkeeper Qasem Burhan from eight yards. Though probably goal-bound anyway, Kagawa made absolutely sure by nodding in ahead of the defender from barely a yard out.

 

Japan immediately grew in confidence, dominating the midfield without quite being able to turn possession into clear-cut chances. Okazaki came closest to forcing a 2-1 lead when his low header from Yuto Nagatomo’s cross spun agonisingly wide of the far post ten minutes into the second half – and five before the match suddenly appeared to turn on its head.

 

After picking up a soft yellow card moments after the restart, Yoshida was adjudged to have fouled Qatari danger man Yusef Ahmed near the corner flag despite television replays showing that the VVV Venlo stopper had won the ball comfortably. To the shock of his teammates, Malaysian referee Mohd Saleh Subkhiddin quickly pulled both cards from his pocket and sent Yoshida from the field.

 

To rub salt into Japanese wounds, Fabio Cesar curled in a low shot from an acute angle that managed to find its way past a crowd of players and somehow beat a poorly positioned Kawashima at his near post.

 

Many a championed side would have crumbled at the perceived injustice, but to their great credit, Japan piled forwards to score a second equaliser within just seven minutes. Okazaki chested the ball down to the feet of Kagawa from another Honda flick, for the Borussia Dortmund star to evade Mesaad Ali inside the area and smash the ball past Burhan with a wonderfully confident left-footed shot.

 

With extra time looming, Soria hit a powerful effort into Kawashima’s side netting from the left-hand edge of the penalty area, but otherwise Japan continued to show greater attacking intentions despite their numerical disadvantage and earned their reward at the death.

 

Makoto Hasebe sliced open the Qatar defence with a low, 20-yard pass to Kagawa, who was caught by at least two desperate challenges as he turned around the goalkeeper, but the ball broke for Inoha to fire into the empty net and spark ecstatic Japanese celebrations.

 

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Japan’s manager was quick to praise the players for their courage and positive attitude after the match.

 

“This team is growing every day,” said Zaccheroni. “We were very much against the home team today, but even after we lost a man we still had more possession and continued to attack right until the end. It was a great comeback and I could see the good mentality from our players.”

 

Captain Hasebe echoed the Italian’s sentiments, saying “We were left in a tough situation but we never gave up and displayed the energy to overcome it, which will give us great confidence”.

 

He was, however, openly critical of the match officials, claiming “The level of Asian football will never improve with that sort of refereeing”.

 

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Japan will face the winners of tonight’s match between Iran and South Korea in the last four on Tuesday evening. Uzbekistan beat Jordan 2-1 in the second quarter-final yesterday and will play either Australia or reigning champions Iraq.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 7 – Japan vs. Qatar preview

20 Jan 2011(Thu)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan go into their Asian Cup quarter-final tomorrow evening as clear favourites but very much the away side as they take on host nation Qatar at the Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha.

 

Having secured top spot in the group with a thumping 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in front of just 2,022 people in Al-Rayyan, Alberto Zaccheroni’s men will expect a hostile atmosphere with a full house of around 25,000.

 

Their goal bonanza on Monday came with the caveat of an unmotivated opponent after the Saudis’ elimination had already been guaranteed, and having observed the action from the bench, key man Keisuke Honda has underlined the dangers of reading too much into the result.

 

Almost all of our goals came from crosses,” said the CSKA Moscow midfielder. “I must say we did not move tightly together and our scoring patterns are limited.”

 

Nevertheless, a major positive to come from the final group fixture was the attacking combination of Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki; the latter of whom having been called into the eleven following the withdrawal through injury of Daisuke Matsui.

 

Okazaki seized the opportunity with an explosive hat-trick, with Maeda recovering his form to score twice after misfiring against both Jordan and Syria. The roles each player performed in both linkup play and creating space for one another have attracted near universal praise back home, with 1990s Japan star Ruy Ramos describing the pairing as “absolutely the best combination in front of goal for the national team”.

 

Now that Matsui has returned to Japan for treatment on a torn thigh muscle, Okazaki is certain to be given his second consecutive start on the right-hand side of an attacking midfield trio. Honda is expected to return in the centre in place of Yosuke Kashiwagi after recovering from the ankle problem that caused him to sit out the match with Saudi Arabia.

 

The major competition for places will come in goal. Regular first-choice Eiji Kawashima is available for selection again after serving a one-match suspension for his sending off against Syria, but replacement Shusaku Nishikawa kept the Samurai Blue’s first clean sheet of the tournament last time out and has expressed his determination to hold onto the gloves.

 

One potential factor in Kawashima’s favour is his record at saving penalties, though he was beaten by all five kicks as Japan lost in a shootout to Paraguay at the last 16 stage of the World Cup in South Africa.

 

With Zaccheroni insisting during Thursday’s press conference that his “approach to games will remain the same regardless of the opponent”, the only other change will come at right-back due to a second yellow card of the competition for Atsuto Uchida. Masahiko Inoha of Kashima Antlers is expected to deputise after registering an assist within five minutes on his international debut on Monday.

 

Clubmate Daiki Iwamasa will continue on the bench following his comeback from injury against the Saudis.

 

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While victory for the Samurai Blue will mean a fourth straight appearance in the last four, Qatar are playing in the knockout stages for only the second time ever after losing 3-1 to China in the 2000 quarter-finals. Ranked 105th in the world, Bruno Metsu’s side are considered outsiders for the title but nonetheless have consistently caused Japan problems in the past.

 

In seven previous encounters, the three-times continental champions have only beaten Qatar once – a 3-0 away win in qualification for last year’s World Cup – while Asian Cup group stage meetings in 2000 and 2007 both surprisingly ended in 1-1 draws.

 

Known as Annabi – ‘the Maroon’ – the hosts looked in danger of an early exit this year after poor defending contributed to an opening day defeat against Uzbekistan. They recovered in spectacular fashion, however, with two superb goals by Yusef Ahmed helping them to a 2-0 win over China, before thrashing Kuwait 3-0 last Sunday.

 

Qatar’s preparations for tomorrow’s fixture have been shaken slightly by the expulsion from the squad of former Manchester City playmaker Hussein Yasser. The 28-year-old had rowed with coach Metsu after being substituted against Uzbekistan and subsequently walked out of training.

 

Uzbekistan face Jordan in the late match tomorrow, with reigning champions Iraq taking on Australia and Iran pitted against South Korea on Saturday. Japan or Qatar will play the winners of the latter fixture in next Tuesday’s semi-final.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 6 – Japan vs. Saudi Arabia report

18 Jan 2011(Tue)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

A Shinji Okazaki hat-trick helped Japan cruise into the knockout stages of the 2011 Asian Cup as group winners with a 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, and completed a miserable tournament for their semi-final conquerors from four years ago.

 

The Shimizu S-Pulse forward immediately justified his selection in place of the injured Daisuke Matsui with two well-taken goals in the opening quarter of an hour, before combining brilliantly with Ryoichi Maeda to fire home his third and Japan’s fifth ten minutes from time.

 

With early elimination assured for the Green Falcons following successive losses against Syria and Jordan, the match had already fallen from its anticipated top billing in Group B, and was over as a contest within just 20 minutes as the Samurai Blue raced into a three-goal lead.

 

After Okazaki’s early double, Maeda quickly netted his first of the competition with a clever volley to eliminate any remaining doubt over Japan’s progression. With that, the explosive start to the game soon descended into procession, but last season’s J. League joint top scorer at least ensured a similar opening to the second half with his second on 51 minutes.

 

Needing a point to ensure qualification for the last eight, Japan’s preparations had been dealt a blow in the hours leading up to the game when it was announced that Tom Tomsk midfielder Matsui would be returning home for treatment on a torn thigh muscle. Keisuke Honda was also deemed too great a risk after suffering an ankle sprain, with Yosuke Kashiwagi the surprise choice as his replacement over Jungo Fujimoto.

 

Shusaku Nishikawa continued in goal with first-choice Eiji Kawashima suspended.

 

Saudi Arabia coach Nasser Al-Johar had emphasised the need to restore pride before the game, but his side were immediately placed onto the back foot when Yasuhito Endo sent a delightfully lofted pass from the halfway line into the path of Okazaki. The Japan number nine evaded the offside trap to loop the ball high over the onrushing Waleed Abdulluh and down beneath the crossbar.

 

His second came five minutes later, when meeting a cross from Shinji Kagawa deep on the left-hand side with a perfectly-timed header at the far post that sailed past the Saudi goalkeeper from ten yards.

 

Maeda then got in on the act in impressive fashion to earn redemption for a series of missed chances in Japan’s second group match against Syria. Full-back Yuto Nagatomo outpaced his marker with an overlapping run down the left flank before sending in a wicked cross toward the six-yard line, where the Jubilo Iwata hitman connected with an airborne volley off the outside of his right boot.

 

All sense of pride seemingly vanished for good, the Saudis appeared powerless – perhaps unwilling – to prevent Japan from breaking forward with ease even as the pace of the game slowed thereafter. Captain Makoto Hasebe volleyed over from Okazaki’s headed lay-off on 25 minutes, while Kagawa really ought to have made it four before half time only to take too heavy a touch when rounding Waleed.

 

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni gave a long-awaited international debut to Masahiko Inoha as a half-time replacement for Atsuto Uchida, and the Kashima Antlers defender made a dramatic impact with an assist in just five minutes. Receiving the ball on the overlap from Okazaki, Inoha crossed for Maeda to reach the ball ahead of Waleed’s punch and head home at the near post.

 

Perhaps the most impressive of the five goals was saved until last. Okazaki and Maeda both spun away from markers as they created space for and executed an ambitious 1-2, before the former dispatched the ball past the hapless Waleed with the kind of confidence that will serve Japan well in the latter stages.

 

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Zaccheroni was understandably delighted with the victory – Japan’s biggest since beating Togo by a similar scoreline in October 2009 – as he spoke to television reporters after full time.

 

“I am very happy and relieved to have met our initial objective of qualification for the knockout rounds. To have made it through with the best goal difference in the group suggests that we are growing as a team. I am very satisfied with my players – particularly for having kept looking for more despite scoring so early on.”

 

For man-of-the-match Okazaki, it was a third career hat-trick on the international stage – the most recent having come against Togo 15 months ago.

 

“I am in good condition and was confident that I could do the job if selected, but our aim is to win the tournament so it is important to build on this. Losing Matsui is unfortunate, but our team is in good spirits and we have no time to get distracted.”

 

The result also means that three-times champions Saudi Arabia suffer the humiliation of three defeats at a single Asian Cup for the first time in their history.

 

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Jordan came from behind to beat Syria 2-1 and seal second place in Group B thanks to an own goal by Ali Dyab and a second-half winner from Odai Al-Saify.

 

They will face Group A winners Uzbekistan in the last eight, with Japan taking on host nation Qatar in the first quarter-final on Friday evening.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 5 – Japan vs. Saudi Arabia preview

17 Jan 2011(Mon)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan go into their final Asian Cup Group B match with Saudi Arabia tonight only needing a draw to ensure qualification for the knockout stages, but coach Alberto Zaccheroni will be forced into at least two changes from the line-up that has started both games so far.

 

Shusaku Nishikawa of Sanfrecce Hiroshima will replace Eiji Kawashima in goal after the latter saw his suspension upheld for a red card against Syria, while Daisuke Matsui tore a thigh muscle in the same fixture to potentially jeopardise his participation in the remainder of the tournament.

 

Star midfielder Keisuke Honda has also been struggling with an ankle problem since the Syria game on Thursday and has played little part in training, but insisted to reporters that this was only a precaution and he will have no problem come kickoff in Al Rayyan.

 

Despite the less than ideal build-up and sluggish performances in Japan’s two previous matches, Zaccheroni appeared calm and positive during his pre-match press conference on Sunday.

 

“We have two main aims against Saudi Arabia,” said the Italian. “First, we must win. And secondly, we need to continue our growth as a team. I want to see an improvement tactically, physically, and mentally. We lagged behind other countries in terms of initial preparations but there is nothing we can do about that now – we simply have to raise our tempo in order to catch up.

 

“But I have no major worries about that. I have great confidence in the quality of our backup players. I will use our squad as the situation demands and ask these players to express themselves on the pitch.”

 

With the manager also implying his reluctance to modify a system that is still “being developed”, 21-year-old Shinji Kagawa will continue to bear a heavy burden of responsibility. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder has struggled to replicate his Bundesliga performances in Qatar thus far, but expects to benefit from the greater freedom afforded to him as Zaccheroni stresses attacking fluidity.

 

Kagawa claimed “I tend to play better when I think less about those around me. It is important to play for the team, but I think it is also important that I try and focus more on my own strong points”.

 

Shinji Okazaki is likely to come in for Matsui to start on the right of midfield, meaning Ryoichi Maeda should continue up front despite squandering a series of chances against Syria. Jungo Fujimoto is on standby for a starting berth should Honda’s ankle condition worsen.

 

The 2011 Asian Cup has been an unmitigated disaster for three-times champions Saudi Arabia, with Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro fired after an opening defeat to Syria, and Prince Sultan Bin Fahd resigning as president of the Saudi Football Federation after a second loss to Jordan ensured their immediate elimination.

 

Replacement coach Nasser Al-Johar emphasised the need to end on a more encouraging note during his pre-match press conference.

 

“We will try our best in the match,” said Al-Johar. “The players have the ability to restore our reputation again.

 

“We are not afraid of Japan but we do respect their potential and capabilities. Psychologically, our players are doing very well – we have good ability in the team and we play well when we face strong sides like Japan.”

 

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One point will ensure a quarter-final place for Japan regardless of the result between Jordan and Syria in Doha, while there even remain a number of permutations by which they could lose and still qualify. The Samurai Blue currently head Group B on goals scored over Jordan, with Syria a point back in third.

 

The group winners will face host nation Qatar in the last eight after their 3-0 victory over Kuwait on Sunday, with the runners-up taking on Uzbekistan, who sealed top spot in Group A despite only drawing 2-2 with China.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 4 – Japan vs. Syria report

14 Jan 2011(Fri)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan recovered from the concession of a penalty equaliser and a red card for goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to eke out a crucial 2-1 win over Syria in their second Asian Cup group match on Thursday evening.

 

After Makoto Hasebe had given Japan the lead on 35 minutes, the captain put his defence in trouble midway through the second half with an under-hit backpass that Kawashima struggled to clear. Although Senharib Malki was clearly in an offside position when the ball then returned, referee Torky Mohsen adjudged that it had done so off a Japanese boot, and Kawashima was sent off for his desperate attempt to stop the Syrian forward.

 

Firas Al Khatib slotted the resulting spot-kick past the outstretched right palm of substitute custodian Shusaku Nishikawa.

 

But the Japanese crisis was averted just six minutes later when they were awarded a penalty of their own. Substitute Shinji Okazaki was brought down by a combination of Belal Abduldaim and Ali Dyab, allowing Keisuke Honda to step up and rescue victory with a powerful shot hit low into the centre of the goal.

 

Despite having hinted at a number of possible changes in the lead up to the game, Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni opted to remain faithful to the players and system that had begun Sunday’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Jordan. This meant that Honda retained the coveted central attacking midfield role, with Shinji Kagawa and Daisuke Matsui on either flank, and Ryoichi Maeda as the lone striker.

 

It was immediately apparent, however, that the front four players had been instructed to swap positions more readily as Zaccheroni looked to rediscover the attacking tempo that had been missing against Jordan. Japan started the game promisingly and should have taken the lead after ten minutes when Maeda sent a free header wide of the far post from Atsuto Uchida’s cross.

 

Their failure to turn possession into goals soon encouraged the Syrians, roared on by an excitable combination of locals and travelling fans, into showing far greater attacking intent than the Samurai Blue had been asked to deal with in their opener. Valeriu Tiţa’s side enjoyed a period of momentum around the halfway point of the first period but lacked composure in the final third, allowing Japan to rally and force their way in front.

 

After Maeda and Yasuyuki Konno had both gone close within 60 seconds, Honda found room to burst down the right-hand side and evade the challenge of Abdulkader Deka to cut back for Kagawa. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder beat two players but when his shot was blocked, Matsui collected the ball and rolled it short for Hasebe to fire low through a crowd of players from the edge of the area.

 

With Japan continuing to cause problems for the Syrian full-backs, Maeda had another excellent chance at the beginning of the second half when put through on goal by Kagawa, but a poor first touch allowed goalkeeper Mosab Balhous to block.

 

An otherwise quiet encounter then suddenly sparked into life with the first penalty decision, causing play to be stopped for five minutes as Japanese players and coaches protested to both the referee and linesman – who had initially flagged for offside – over an incident that looked set to cost them dear.

 

In a frantic seven minutes of stoppage time, Syria defender Nadim Sabag was dismissed for a second yellow card offence.

 

“We performed very well and I am very satisfied,” said a bullish Zaccheroni after the final whistle. “It was a totally one-sided game for Japan – even when we were down to ten players, we performed like we had 11.”

 

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There was yet another Group B surprise in store in Thursday’s other fixture as Jordan beat Saudi Arabia 1-0. Baha’a Abdelrahman scored the only goal of the game in unusual fashion when his 40-yard cross-cum-shot looped over the flailing arms of goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah. The result means that Japan will only need a draw to seal a place in the last eight when they face the Saudis, who now have no chance of progression, in Al-Rayyan on Monday.

 

In Group A, host nation Qatar bounced back from their opening day defeat to beat China 2-0 on Wednesday, while Uzbekistan enjoyed a 2-1 victory over Kuwait.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 3 – Japan vs. Syria preview

12 Jan 2011(Wed)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan go into their second Asian Cup group match against Syria in Doha on Thursday with their hopes of qualification in the balance after a pair of surprising results on Sunday evening.

 

Hours after Alberto Zaccheroni’s side had rescued a 1-1 draw against Jordan thanks to a stoppage time header from Maya Yoshida, the Syrians - supposedly the weakest team in the pool with a world ranking of 107 - produced the shock of the tournament so far by beating three-times champions Saudi Arabia 2-1 in Al-Rayyan.

 

The Japan manager described the latter match as “almost an exact copy of our game versus Jordan”, with the more highly fancied Saudis dominating possession for much of the 90 minutes but repeatedly frustrated in the final third of the pitch by a Syria side that defended in numbers.

 

He admits, however, that while tomorrow night’s opponents will be expected to adopt a similar mindset against Japan, this can be no excuse for any further setbacks.

 

“Our team is surely capable of better,” said Zaccheroni before training on Monday. “If our opponents come to defend then we cannot attack like we did against Jordan. We need to be faster.

 

“Syria will likely play the same way again, but even so, we still have to beat them. If Japanese football is going to develop then this is a team we must be able to defeat.”

 

In a change from Japan’s opening fixture, Shinji Kagawa looks likely to be granted a central attacking midfield role from the start having given the side more fluency after switching from the left flank midway through the second half on Sunday. It is a position in which the 21-year-old has excelled so far this season at Borussia Dortmund having been granted greater freedom by coach Jürgen Klopp, despite being customarily used on the left during his J. League career with Cerezo Osaka.

 

Kagawa insisted after the Jordan match that “I need to be able to play on the left as well… but if I’m honest, I find it far easier in the middle”.

 

Even Keisuke Honda, who started centrally against Jordan, conceded that things went better for Japan after he was moved to the right. Should Zaccheroni remain faithful to the familiar 4-2-3-1 system, Shinji Okazaki would be favourite to fill in on the left-hand side with Daisuke Matsui dropping to the bench, but rumours persist in the Japanese media that the Italian may switch to a back three in order to accommodate an additional attacking player.

 

The latter scenario could mean a debut for Kashima Antlers defender Masahiko Inoha, although full-backs Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo remain in contention after recovering from knocks picked up in the opener.

 

Inoha was quoted as saying yesterday that “Zaccheroni told me he still wasn’t sure if he was going to play three at the back, but he wanted me to be prepared for it”.

 

Japan have drawn one and won six of their seven past meetings with Syria, most recently a 3-1 friendly win in Kobe in 2008, but are expecting to be made to feel like the away side in Doha after witnessing the highly vocal travelling support their opponents enjoyed against Saudi Arabia.

 

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Group C favourites Australia and South Korea both got off to a promising start on Monday with wins over India and Bahrain respectively, but defending champions Iraq lost 2-1 to neighbours Iran in their opening Group D fixture yesterday. North Korea could only draw 0-0 with the United Arab Emirates after Hong Yong-Jo missed a first half penalty.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 2 – Japan vs. Jordan report

10 Jan 2011(Mon)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Maya Yoshida went from villain to hero in dramatic fashion on Sunday evening, but Japan suffered a hugely disappointing start to their 2011 Asian Cup campaign as they were held to a 1-1 draw by lowly Jordan.

 

The Middle Eastern side, ranked 104th in the world by FIFA, took the lead against the run of play in first half stoppage time when Yoshida inadvertently diverted a Hasan Abdel Fattah attempt into his own net, but the VVV Venlo stopper eventually made amends with a headed equaliser on 93 minutes.

 

Manager Alberto Zaccheroni opted, as expected, for a 4-2-3-1 system with Ryoichi Maeda chosen to lead the attack and Daisuke Matsui preferred to Shinji Okazaki on the right of midfield. Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno formed a makeshift centre-back pairing in the absence of several key defenders - including Tomoaki Makino, who has now been replaced in the squad by Mitsuru Nagata after failing to recover from a double ankle sprain.

 

Japan began the game in positive fashion and controlled possession throughout the first half, but in a manner all too reminiscent of previous failures before last year’s World Cup, struggled to create many real chances against unfancied opponents happy to sit back and defend.

 

The best opportunity of the opening period fell to Shinji Kagawa on 40 minutes, when a clever dummy by Maeda left the Borussia Dortmund star through on goal only to see his low shot blocked by Amer Sabah from eight yards. Kagawa had earlier tested the goalkeeper with a cross-cum-shot from the left-hand corner of the penalty area, while Yoshida saw a close-range effort ruled out for offside after Makoto Hasebe’s low drive was parried.

 

The favourites were made to pay for their profligacy and indecision in front of goal when Jordan scored a shock opener on the counter attack moments before the interval. Amer Deeb stole possession high up the field on the right-hand flank before squaring to Hasan, whose 20-yard shot took a massive deflection off Yoshida and flew past the helpless Eiji Kawashima.

 

Zaccheroni responded immediately by introducing Tadanari Lee for a full international debut in place of Maeda, but now the Jordanians enjoyed the luxury of a lead to defend, Japan’s players found themselves with less and less space in which to turn persistent domination into genuine goal threat. Hasebe volleyed narrowly wide from substitute Okazaki’s cross, but the likes of Kagawa and Keisuke Honda were otherwise restricted to frustrated pot shots as full time approached with the scoreline unchanged.

 

Four minutes of injury time displayed seemed to suddenly galvanise the Samurai Blue into life. Hasebe collected a short corner from Kagawa to place a high curling cross toward the back post, where Yoshida rose high above two Jordan defenders to head home and rescue Japan’s blushes.

 

There may even have been time for an improbable winner, but Lee failed to control the ball at the death despite finding space to shoot against a tiring back line.

 

The Japanese players appeared despondent afterwards having struggled so badly in a match they had been expected to win comfortably, and their manager would seem to have plenty to resolve ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Syria.

 

“I felt we controlled the game and had easily the more chances,” said Zaccheroni. “But we were essentially thrown off course by an own goal. The speed of our build-up play was a little too slow at times, and this is something we will need to work on before our second match.”

 

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There was another surprise in the late game in Group B as three times Asian champions Saudi Arabia went down to a 2-1 defeat against Syria. Two deflected goals from Abdulrazaq Al-Husein proved sufficient for the Syrians, making their first appearance in the competition since 1996, despite a second half equaliser by Tayseer Al-Jassem. Saudi coach Jose Paseiro was immediately fired in the wake of the result.

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Minutecast Asian Cup Special 1 – Japan vs. Jordan preview

8 Jan 2011(Sat)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

National team boss Alberto Zaccheroni has a defensive crisis to contend with as Japan prepare for their opening Asian Cup group match with Jordan in Doha tomorrow.

 

With both first-choice centre-backs, Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, already missing the tournament through injury, likely replacement Tomoaki Makino suffered an ankle sprain in training on Thursday, while Daiki Iwamasa is still struggling with a tendon problem picked up in the Emperor’s Cup quarter-final on Christmas Day.

 

To make matters worse, teenage rookie Gotoku Sakai has now also been ruled out of the competition altogether with lower back pain.

 

Ryota Moriwaki of Sanfrecce Hiroshima has already been drafted into the squad as a replacement for Sakai, and the team’s medical staff will wait right up until tomorrow morning’s deadline for further registration changes before deciding whether or not Makino and Iwamasa are likely to play any part in Qatar.

 

In what will be his first competitive test as Japan manager, Zaccheroni therefore looks likely to field a makeshift central defensive pair consisting of FC Tokyo utility man Yasuyuki Konno and 22-year-old Maya Yoshida of VVV Venlo, whose only previous cap came in a qualifying match against Yemen 12 months ago.

 

Despite rumours in the domestic press earlier in the week surrounding the possible deployment of a three-man defence, the Italian is expected to retain the 4-2-3-1 system used successfully in friendlies last autumn against Argentina and South Korea. Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe should resume their partnership at the base of midfield, with Shinji Kagawa in a left-sided attacking role and Keisuke Honda taking the coveted central position behind the lone forward.

 

Ryoichi Maeda, joint top scorer in last season’s J. League, is favourite to be granted the striking berth in the absence of Takayuki Morimoto, but Shinji Okazaki could alternatively be pushed further forward with Daisuke Matsui returning on the right-hand side of midfield.

 

Jordan are making just their second ever appearance in a continental finals, but will be buoyed by the memory of their previous campaign in 2004, when they reached the quarter-finals and took Japan all the way to a penalty shootout. Zico’s eventual champions even looked set for a shock exit as they trailed 3-1 after three kicks apiece, but the Jordanians then contrived to miss four times in a row after the referee controversially agreed to switch ends midway through.

 

Four of the current Jordan squad played that day in Chongqing, China. Coach Adnan Hamad will likely mirror Japan’s 4-2-3-1 formation, with the sole European-based player, Odai Al-Saify of Alky Larnaca in Cyprus, seen as the main goal threat.

 

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The host nation got off to a disappointing start when they were beaten 2-0 by Uzbekistan in the opening match on Friday evening. Odil Ahmedov opened the scoring with a superb 30-yard effort on the hour, before Server Djeparov took advantage of catastrophic Qatari defending to seal a comfortable win.

 

China moved joint top of Group A on Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Kuwait.

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