MATCHES IN 2006
||USA v Japan
||Japan v Finland
||Japan v India
||Bosnia & H. v Japan
||Japan v Ecuador
||Japan v Bulgaria
||Japan v Scotland
||Germany v Japan
||Malta v Japan
|Participations: (2) 1998 and 2002
|Best placing: Second round 2002
|Topscorer: Junichi Inamoto, 2 goals
|Jun 12 - JPN v AUS
|Jun 18 - JPN v CRO
|Jun 22 - JPN v BRA
- Japan in Group F
||First round exit
ASIAN CHAMPS FACE MOMENT OF TRUTH
by Paul Marcuccitti
In 2004, Japan retained the Asian Cup. In 2005, Japan comfortably clinched qualification for the World Cup finals and performed well at the Confederations Cup. In 2006, one of Japanís best players says that he feels the team is heading nowhere at the moment.
Well thatís a relief. For a moment we could have been fooled into thinking that the team coached by Brazilian legend Zico might be a real threat in Germany.
Of course, plenty of star players can be controversial and it might not be prudent to read too much into Hidetoshi Nakataís gloomy assessment. But whether the Bolton Wanderers midfielder is right or wrong, Japanís players are facing a moment of truth because now weíre going to find out just how far the team has come.
The rising sun took a while to warm to football. In the early 1990s, the nation we associated more with sumo wrestling and baseball made a giant leap by establishing the professional J-League. In 1998, the Blues played in their first World Cup finals. Four years later, Japan, playing at home, reached the last 16.
The Japanese have also won three of the last four Asian Cups so theyíve made a statement about their place in the world.
But Group F will test the Blues. They face Australia, Croatia and Brazil Ė and each game provides a fascinating measure.
Coach Zico has already talked about the importance of the match against Australia. Itís Japanís opening game and it pits his team against the new challenger in the Asian confederation.
Croatia, a consistent European team, provides the sort of test that Japan needs to pass to reach the second round again.
And then itís the world champion, Brazil. There is no greater measuring stick.
The Blues might be derailed by problems in attack. The Japanese arenít exactly blessed with a lot of prolific strikers and, to make matters worse, injury may force two of their forwards, Atsushi Yanagisawa and Tatsuhiko Kubo, to miss the tournament.
Yanagisawa, who was loaned back to his original J-League team Kashima Antlers by Italian club Messina, has a broken metatarsal in his right foot. Kubo (Yokohama F Marinos), recently recalled to the national team after an injury-enforced absence, has had back problems.
Zico, who was appointed coach after the 2002 World Cup, has received his share of criticism from the Japanese media. After Japan scored an injury time goal to escape with a draw in a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina in February, commentators condemned Zicoís preferred 4-4-2 formation. If the national team struggles in its last friendlies before the tournament starts, he may revert to a 3-5-2.
Japan has two highly-experienced goalkeepers who should both be included in the 23-man squad for Germany, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Jubilo Iwata) and Seigo Narazaki (Nagoya Grampus Eight). Both were in the Bluesí squads for France 98 and Korea/Japan 02. In 1998, Kawaguchi played in every match in the World Cup finals; in 2002, it was Narazakiís turn. Kawaguchi is favoured to be the first choice again this year as he has been selected for most of Japanís internationals in the last 12 months.
Between them, Japanís central defenders, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Yuji Nakazawa, have won over 100 caps. Miyamoto (Gamba Osaka), the national teamís captain, is both stylish and resolute. Along with being the other half of a fine defensive pairing, Nakazawa (Yokohama F Marinos) can be a threat at the other end. He has scored some important goals for both club and country.
If Zico employs a third centre back, the main candidates are Keisuke Tsuboi (Urawa Reds) and Makoto Tanaka (Jubilo Iwata).
At right-back (in a 4-4-2), Akira Kaji (FC Tokyo) has become a near certainty. With his pace and crossing ability, Kaji can also be used on the right of midfield. Similarly, Brazilian-born Alex Santos can operate at left-back or in midfield.
Japan has plenty of options in the middle of the park and there should be healthy competition for midfield places.
The experienced Takashi Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata) might be Zicoís first pick in a defensive midfield position. He was a member of Japanís squad four years ago but made only one appearance as a late substitute.
Fukunishi may keep Junichi Inamoto (West Bromwich Albion) on the sidelines. The tough-tackling Inamoto will surely be a member of Zicoís squad but the 2002 hero is now no certainty in the Bluesí starting team.
Crucial to Japanís hopes are creative midfielders, Shunsuke Nakamura (Celtic) and Hidetoshi Nakata.
Two years ago, the left-sided Nakamura starred in Japanís victorious Asian Cup team and the goal-scoring midfielder will be keen to put the disappointment of missing out on the Bluesí 2002 squad behind him at this yearís tournament. Nakamura could be the teamís most influential player in Germany.
Hidetoshi Nakata, Japanís best-known player, might not be optimistic about his teamís chances, but the 1997 & í98 Asian Player of the Year has the ability to make a great contribution to its performance. Nakata, now at Bolton Wanderers after a long career in Italy, is comfortable both in the centre of midfield and on the right.
Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers) is another likely midfield starter who enjoys dropping in just behind Japanís forwards. Ogasawara passes the ball well and he will be one of the main candidates to strike free kicks on goal.
Other midfield options include Koji Nakata (FC Basel), Shinji Ono (Urawa Reds) and Daisuke Matsui (Le Mans).
Koji Nakata has had an unhappy time at club level in Europe in recent seasons but heíll almost certainly be picked in Zicoís squad. He can play in defence or as a defensive midfielder.
Itís hard to believe that Shinji Ono is only 26 years old because he seems to have been around forever. Despite his versatility, Ono, who played as a teenager at France 98, could have trouble breaking into Japanís first-choice midfield in Germany. But the former Feyenoord player and 2002 Asian Player of the Year has recently returned from a long injury spell so it might be unwise to write off his chances of having a big role in the Bluesí campaign.
Daisuke Matsui has only made a handful of appearances for the national side. Matsui is an attacking left-sided midfielder.
Achieving potency in attack will be the Bluesí biggest challenge. As mentioned, Tatsuhiko Kubo and Atsushi Yanagisawa, two of Japanís best four forwards, have had injury woes. Kubo is a real favourite with Bluesí fans so they will be hoping that heíll be fit and in form in Germany.
Other forwards that will be considered include Naohiro Takahara (Hamburger SV) and Masashi Oguro (Grenoble).
Takahara has been on and off the bench with Hamburger in the Bundesliga but he has a fine record with the national team and should be a certainty for the 23-man squad.
Oguro has been a super-sub for Japan in recent times and although heís playing in Franceís Ligue 2, heís been finding the back of the net.
Any remaining places for forwards in the Bluesí squad will be between: Keiji Tamada (Nagoya Grampus Eight), Seiichiro Maki (JEF United Ichihara Chiba), Hisato Sato (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Yoshito Okubo (Mallorca), Sota Hirayama (Heracles Almelo) and Takayuki Suzuki (Red Star Belgrade).
Hirayama would be an exciting selection. The lanky youngster hasnít yet played for Japan at senior level but he has made a splash in the Netherlands with Heracles.
Takayuki Suzuki seems to be out of favour at the moment but he has plenty of experience and he played in all of Japanís matches in the 2002 World Cup finals.
So now weíll find out the truth about Japan. Will the Blues continue to develop as a force in international football? Or is Hidetoshi Nakata right to be pessimistic about the teamís chances in Germany?
Despite being drawn in a challenging group, Japan will have to reach the last 16 to be given a pass mark by the harsh judges of international football.
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