Samurai Blue look for cutting edge

Japan search for regular goalscorer at Asian Cup as they try to push on from creditable World Cup performances.

    Defender Yoshida saved Japan from defeat  but the East Asians need to find a reliable source of goals [GALLO/GETTY]

    After a great World Cup and subsequent friendly wins over Paraguay and Argentina, it was back to the bad old Japan as the Asian Cup opened in Qatar last weekend.

    The 1-1 Group B draw with Jordan on Sunday means the match with Syria on Thursday is taking on a must-win hue for the Samurai Blue.

    It was a familiar exercise in frustration for fans who stayed up late on Sunday evening back home, but it could have been a good deal worse.

    Only a last-minute header from 22-year-old defender Maya Yoshida gave the team that came within a penalty shootout of a place in the last eight in South Africa last summer a point against a Jordan team not even ranked in the top 100.
    Japan struggled to convert chances into goals in the face of an opposition that defended in numbers and were committed in the tackle. It was a lacklustre performance, though it should be said that preparation for the three-time champions has been short, and 2010 was a very long season.
    New coach Alberto Zaccheroni is experienced enough to know that too much should not be read into opening games of tournaments.


    His native Italian national team have provided ample examples of that, but the sight of his forwards floundering did not please the former AC Milan and Juventus boss.

    A goal to the good in the second half, Jordan found even less reason to venture forward and allowed the Japanese to keep the ball.

    "In Japan all we learn is how to pass...I decided I needed to just score goals to get noticed. I couldn't make it to the next level with assists"

    Keisuke Honda, Japan midfielder

    With a possession rate of 68 per cent, that is what they did. The men in blue passed and passed to little avail, with the thick red line rarely penetrated.

    Ryoichi Maeda may average a goal every other game in Japan's J-League but the Jubilo Iwata man gave the defenders of Jordan, ranked 104th in the world, little trouble. The highly-praised duo of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda had little impact.
    The absence of central defensive pillars Yuji Nakazawa and Marcos Tulio Tanaka due to injury was noticeable, and not just at the back.

    The pair are a menace from set pieces, though such was the poor quality of the delivery from the usually reliable feet of Yasuhito Endo and Honda that even the big stoppers would have struggled to have got on the end of anything.

    When chances were created, the forwards couldn't put them away. The question of why Japan struggles to produce clinical goalscorers in front of goal has long been discussed here in East Asia.

    Various theories abound, none of which are completely convincing. These include:

    1) The nature of Japanese society, and the fact that taking responsibility for being out there on your own is a scary and unwelcome prospect.

    2) The team ethic that helped to make the country into an economic powerhouse, with harmony the name of the game, means that helping others to score rather than going for glory yourself may be the better option.

    3) With the plethora of top-class Japanese midfielders in recent years making names for themselves around the world, that has served to encourage a new generation of wannabe Hidetoshi Nakatas and Shunsuke Nakamuras to the detriment of other positions.

    4) The fact that many J-League teams hire foreign forwards doesn't help, and few forwards that move overseas succeed.

    Honda, the attacking midfielder who can obviously score, as he did in the World Cup against Cameroon and Denmark, puts it down to mentality.

    Pass masters

    "In Europe I had to learn to win one-on-one battles just to survive on my team," the CSKA Moscow star said before the finals in South Africa.

    Asian Cup Group B

    Sunday January 9

     Japan 1-1 Jordan
     Saudi Arabia 1-2 Syria

    Thursday January 13

     Jordan v Saudi Arabia
     Syria v Japan

    Monday January 17

     Jordan v Syria
     Saudi Arabia v Japan

    "In Japan all we learn is how to pass...I decided I needed to just score goals to get noticed and make it to the next level.

    "No one was going to notice my passes. I couldn't make it to the next level with assists."

    Nakata was the first Japanese to really star in Europe, and he is another not afraid to voice his opinion. He agrees with Honda.

    "When you're abroad nobody takes a Japanese soccer player seriously," he told Japanese media before the World Cup.

    "Because of this, you just have to score. Those who can't score can't make it abroad...we still have a problem scoring goals, even in the national team."

    Of course, it could easily be one bad game. It may need to be. A better offensive performance is necessary against Syria on Thursday. Ranked just three places below Jordan at 107, the boys from Damascus shocked Saudi Arabia with a 2-1 win on Sunday.

    For Syria a point against Japan would be a great result and another packed, well-organised and committed defence lies in store for Zaccheroni and his men, who certainly don't want to head into the final group match against Saudi Arabia needing to win.

    John Duerden has lived in East Asia for 10 years, covering the football scene for international titles such as Sports Illustrated and The Guardian as well as a host of Asian publications. He lives in Seoul, South Korea.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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