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Six things we (Japan) learned from the 2011 Asian Cup – Part 2

3 Feb 2011(Thu)

(Continued from Part 1)

 

With so many goals, red cards, penalties, and late, late recoveries, to call Japan’s victorious Asian Cup campaign ‘dramatic’ would be a masterpiece of understatement. To be honest, each of the six points made in this feature could have warranted an article of their own, but despite my best efforts to summarise, the overall volume still grew bulky enough to be best spread over two articles. The first three points were covered in Part 1; the final three are detailed below.

 

 

4. ...but one old issue could re-emerge in World Cup qualification

Footballing matters are often decided by fine margins. Another problem with 4-2-3-1 is that it can be ill-suited to penetrating weaker opponents who are more than happy to sit back for 90 minutes and play for a draw or whatever else they can get. Resultant dropped points against teams in the lower half of the table have derailed many a title challenge in the past – Liverpool under Rafael Benitez immediately spring to mind – and this is why, for example, Sir Alex Ferguson will routinely abandon his single-striker system for a more ‘basic’ 4-4-2 in matches he expects Manchester United to win (especially at Old Trafford).

 

After the drama of the knockout rounds, it is easy to forget that Japan could quite feasibly have been eliminated in the Asian Cup group stage. Without a 93rd minute equaliser in the opener with Jordan and an 83rd minute penalty against Syria, the Samurai Blue would have gone into that Saudi Arabia match with just one point and qualification out of their hands no matter how many goals they scored. Although the team undeniably grew into the tournament and used to their system, it is not insignificant that they struggled most for fluency against these two lesser-fancied and – particularly in Jordan’s case – more defensive sides.

 

This throws up a potential dilemma for Zaccheroni come next year. With likely four or five places in Brazil up for grabs, Asian World Cup qualification is not so much a matter of beating South Korea or Australia, but of ensuring maximum points against everybody else. The manager will be loath to dispense with the 4-2-3-1, but must therefore strike the right balance between fine-tuning his gameplan for the big boys and making sure to complete the tasks more immediately at hand. Memories are still fresh of Japan’s regular struggles to finish off opponents like Oman, Bahrain, and North Korea under Zico and Okada.

 

 

5. Still. At least everybody loves ‘Zac’, and with good reason

It is only right that this feature’s overwhelming focus on purely Japanese issues be concluded on a positive note. In Zaccheroni, Japan have a new manager of proven pedigree both at club and, immediately, at national team level. His early successes have guaranteed his favour with players, fans, and journalists alike, ensuring that the team will show confidence in his judgements and (hopefully) be spared the harsh criticism from terraces and headlines that Okada Japan so often had to endure.

 

This has not just been about results. The Italian may not yet speak the same language as the rest of the dressing room but the affection he shows toward his charges appears most genuine. The tactical shift he made midway through the second half against Australia – introducing Iwamasa for Fujimoto, switching Okazaki back over to the right, pushing Nagatomo forward into attacking midfield, and asking Konno to fill in at left-back – betrayed a deep, inherent understanding of what each of Japan’s players are capable of contributing as and when the conditions of the match demand. It was with great joy that he asked the Japanese public, live on television after the full-time whistle, to share his pride in what had now become a “really good” national team.

 

Finally, for all this talk of long-term objectives, there appears little reason to doubt that Zaccheroni fully intends on being there to see the Brazil 2014 plan through personally. This can only be excellent news for football in this country.

 

 

6. East Asia’s big three are moving head and shoulders clear of the rest

The fact that the 2007 Asian Cup final was contested by two Middle Eastern nations – Iraq beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 – appears more of a historical anomaly with every match played and every ball kicked. Though the title holders and their neighbours, three-time champions Iran, emerged from Group D to respectively take Australia and South Korea to extra time in the quarter-finals, their shortfall in quality was underlined by the apparent acknowledgment in their approach that penalties represented their best hope of further progress. The Saudis’ 5-0 capitulation against Japan came after their elimination had been ensured in two matches and their manager sacked after just one.

 

For the first time since 1964 – when none of them had bothered entering anyway – not one of West Asia’s traditional big three reached the semi-finals. The trio’s status on their own half of the continent is now threatened not only by Uzbekistan (who did make the last four, only to suffer a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of the Socceroos), but also by the likes of Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, and even Syria. By contrast, Japan, Australia, and South Korea will all look to build on greatly more impressive showings with renewed ambition outside of the region.

 

A look at the club scene suggests this trend is only likely to continue. East Asian sides have won the last four AFC Champions League finals, while the J, K, and A Leagues are all producing more and more players capable of forging careers in Europe. In time, the intercontinental transfer fees will rise from their current modest level and provide significant income with which the new big three can reach ever greater levels of competitiveness.

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