Friday, February 6, 2009

Tit-for-tat spats ahead of crucial World Cup qualifier

Tit-for-tat spats ahead of crucial World Cup qualifier.
Japan's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Australia in Yokohama has been punctuated by an on-going verbal stoush between the two sides.

The chatter kicked off in earnest after Japan beat Qatar 3-0 in Doha last November, with a bullish Japan coach Takeshi Okada telling reporters that he wanted to "shut up" the Socceroos.

Predictably his statement was like a red rag to a bull for the Australians, with Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill retorting that his team could be one of the first to qualify for the finals in South Africa in 2010 by picking up three points in Yokohama.

Never short of a quote, West Ham United defender Neill went on to declare that Australia has the "mental edge" over a struggling Japanese side.

"We know psychologically we have a slight edge over them from the World Cup," Neill told AAP in the build-up to an eagerly anticipated clash.

That World Cup reference comes from Australia's epic 3-1 win over Japan in the group stage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany - which launched the Socceroos on their way to the second round.

Japan claimed revenge with a penalty shoot-out victory in the quarter-finals of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, and the tension is building ahead of the latest installment of this burgeoning rivalry.

Just days away from the clash at a sold-out Yokohama International Stadium, Takeshi Okada has softened his tone.

"I need to be careful about what I say now... all I can say is that it won't be as easy as tonight," he told The Daily Yomiuri in the wake of Japan's recent 5-1 friendly defeat over an inexperienced Finland at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

"There were some things we did well today, and some things we didn't.

Thinking about the Australia game, I think we needed to execute better, but the match was meaningful to us."

Okada is under fierce pressure after his side were beaten 1-0 by Bahrain in Manama in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier at the end of last month.

At the same time Australia drew 0-0 with Indonesia in Jakarta, however Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek negated any potential criticism ahead of that clash by naming a side comprised entirely of A-League representatives.

Verbeek has reverted to a largely European-based squad for the match in Yokohama - but they will meet just 48 hours prior to kick-off - handing Japan somewhat of a psychological advantage.

The cagey Dutchman has been quick to turn the pressure back on Japan, however, telling reporters that his team can afford to lose in Yokohama and still qualify comfortably for the finals in South Africa.

Okada, meanwhile, will be desperate for a win - with some sections of the Japanese press calling for his head following a lacklustre qualifying campaign so far.

It all points to a fascinating encounter in Yokohama, although with the top two from a five-team group qualifying automatically for South Africa, both Japan and Australia have time up their sleeves to guarantee themselves a place at FIFA's money-spinning extravaganza.

The Japan - Australia clash will take place on February 11 at Yokohama International Stadium, with kick-off set for 7.20pm local time.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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