Thursday, July 19, 2007

The rematch: Japan vs Australia

Japan vs Australia.
Former Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston claimed it was potentially "one of the great rivalries in Asian football." Japan defender Yuji Nakazawa predicted a 3-0 win for his side and told reporters "we can't lose twice." Australia and Japan fans have been poring over the minutia of every comment made by player or reporter alike - eager to highlight the flaws, desperate to imagine an advantage. Make no mistake, the quarter-final clash between Japan and Australia at My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi is one of the most anticipated of this year's Asian Cup.

Ever since Australia beat Japan 3-1 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, the Blue Samurai have been dreaming of a rematch. They were granted that wish somewhat earlier than anticipated, with Australia's second-place finish in their Asian Cup group ensuring a quarter-final showdown against their old foes. Japan arguably go into this match in better form.

Eintracht Frankfurt marksman Naohiro Takahara leads the goal-scoring charts with three goals, along with Uzbekistan's Maxim Shatskikh and Mark Viduka of Australia. Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura has played with quiet efficiency without having dazzled at the tournament so far - although he looks more than capable of doing so on the big stage. Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo and Sanfrecce Hiroshima wing-back Yuichi Komano have provided important contributions, while the much-malgined Seiichiro Maki has also chipped in with goals.

Japan vs Australia.
In the tall and powerful Maki, Japan may just have an advantage that bucks all of the stereotypes. The JEF United striker has been heavily criticised for his lack of goals in the J-League, but with accurate crosses flowing in from the likes of Nakamura and Komano, the target-man suddenly looks capable of testing international defences.

While Australia have in the past been praised for their robust defences, they have recently looked anything but solid at the back. Leicester City stopper Patrick Kisnorbo appeared to be out of his depth in the opening two fixtures, whilst West Ham defender Lucas Neill was sent off late in the match against Iraq. Michael Beauchamp and Mark Milligan stepped in for the clash with Thailand - with the latter's superb performance providing a selection headache for coach Graham Arnold.

Milligan is a quick and agile player, with a knack for reading the game. What he lacks is physical presence - something that Seiichiro Maki has in spades, and if Japan coach Ivica Osim can coax some more aggression out of his lanky forward, then Japan might have an unexpected aerial advantage over their opponents.

Nevertheless the Blue Samurai are not without their problems. Urawa Reds defensive midfielder Yuki Abe has looked shaky in a central defensive role alongside Yuji Nakazawa, and it was Abe who committed a late foul that saw Japan concede an equaliser in their opening 1-1 draw with Qatar. Akira Kaji has been dreadful at the back, so much so that there is conjecture about his place in the team.

There has also been a conspicuous absence of any meaningful contribution from Kawasaki Frontale playmaker Kengo Nakamura, with the diminutive midfielder seemingly overshadowed by his more illustrious namesake in midfield. Ivica Osim, meanwhile, has attracted mirth with his increasingly bizarre rants in his role as coach of a country renowned for its non-confrontational attitude.

Australia are arguably the polar opposite of Japan in that respect, and their brashness in practically declaring themselves pre-tournament favourites served to heap pressure on them when they stumbled in the group stage. They'll require no further motivation for this clash, however, with the Australian team constantly needled by suggestions - whether real or imagined, that they are an overly physical team.

They were incensed when Japan opened the scoring in Kaiserslautern just over twelve months ago, claiming that burly striker Naohiro Takahara had fouled goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in the build up to Japan's goal. The Socceroos will hope that Kuwaiti referee Saad Kameel Al Fadhli keeps a firm grip on this potentially explosive encounter, even if their bustling style draws attention from the man in black.

Australia's hero in Kaiserslautern was Everton midfielder Tim Cahill, who came off the bench to score twice in the dying minutes and propel Australia to that famous 3-1 victory. Cahill is unlikely to start against Japan in Hanoi, having only just returned from a long injury layoff.

There is also concern over the form of injury-plagued Liverpool midfielder Harry Kewell. The wing wizard came off the bench and scored a virtuoso goal in the 4-0 win over Thailand, but the Australians can ill afford to start slowly against Japan, with the two-time defending champions having played arguably the most up-tempo football of any team in the tournament. Kewell may be required from the start, and he will certainly need to fire.

Thus a fascinating duel between these two regional rivals awaits, with the winner to face either Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan in the semi-final. The loser will go home with their ambition unfulfilled, with Japan chasing a third straight continental crown, whilst Australia earlier claimed that anything less than a place in the final would be viewed as a failure.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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