Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Still plenty at stake between Australia and Japan

Japan.
Looking more like a ward of hospital patients than a squad of professional footballers, Japan arrived in Melbourne with seemingly one goal in mind. Forget the three qualifying points on offer from their World Cup qualifier against the Socceroos, Takeshi Okada’s men appeared more determined to avoid contracting swine flu as they disembarked in the sporting capital of Australia.

It was surgical masks all around at Tullamarine Airport, with the Japanese leaving nothing to chance in a city that has been beset by an outbreak of the highly contagious H1N1 virus. The disease is not Takeshi Okada’s only concern, with Japan forced to leave Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura at home due to a groin strain.

His absence is exacerbated by the fact that Gamba Osaka playmaker Yasuhito Endo tore a hamstring in training several days ago, ensuring that Japan travelled Down Under without two of their key players. Wolfsburg duo Makoto Hasebe and Yoshito Okubo were also left out, while VVV Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda was yet another casualty as Japan showed up with a squad labelled “second-string” by the local Australian press.

Never shy of offering an opinion, the domestic press has also been fiercely critical of Australia coach Pim Verbeek in the build up to this high-profile clash. It’s a measure of how far football has come since a second round exit at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, with Verbeek currently under siege for what the tabloid press are claiming is a boring and unnecessarily conservative approach.

Scratch the surface and it’s apparent that the explosion in popularity of football has threatened the interests of mainstream media in Australia, as both newspaper and television outlets wrestle with a once maligned game that is now knocking traditional sports off the back pages and out of prime time news bulletins.

So competitive is the tight-knit Australia sports market that media outlets with financial interests in the dominant National Rugby League have stopped just short of labelling Verbeek a total disaster.

That is despite the fact that the laconic Dutch coach is at the helm of a team yet to taste defeat in the final round of qualifiers, with goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer keeping seven consecutive clean sheets so far.

The constant criticism of Verbeek hasn’t impacted on ticket sales, with more than 75,000 fans expected to pile into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for what is essentially a dead rubber. In a city more renowned for its love of Aussie Rules, the citizens of Melbourne look set to once again turn the fabled MCG into a white-hot sporting arena.

That has prompted Bruno Metsu to throw his two cents in, with the coach of group rivals Qatar telling reporters that Japan struggle to deal with pressure, after Qatar held Okada’s side to a 1-1 draw in Yokohama in their most recent qualifier.

“When Japan come under pressure, when opponents take the game to them, they have a habit of losing direction, not knowing what to do,” Metsu told The Daily Yomiuri following Japan’s disappointing home draw.

Okada brushed off the criticism, but he remains under pressure to guide his side to the top of the group at the expense of the unbeaten Socceroos. He will hope that young Shimizu S-Pulse striker Shinji Okazaki continues his recent hot streak, with Japanese fans desperate to uncover a reliable goalscorer at international level.

Several strikers have come and gone in recent campaigns, with the likes of Hisato Sato, Kazuki Ganaha and Seiichiro Maki all unable to nail down a regular starting place. Injury-riddled former Bundesliga star Naohiro Takahara is no longer a regular starter at club side Urawa Reds, and he was dropped from the national team more than a year ago.

While Okazaki is the latest to be burdened with goal scoring expectations, the ace up Okada's sleeve could be teenage midfielder Naoki Yamada. The 18-year-old has burst onto the scene with a series of stellar displays for Urawa Reds that have drawn comparisons with former Japan great Shinji Ono.

Whether Okada throws Yamada into the cauldron-like atmosphere of the MCG remains to be seen. However one thing is certain, both Australia and Japan are itching to finish the group in first place and thereby hand themselves a confidence boost going into the finals in South Africa.

They may have already qualified, but there’s still plenty at stake when Australia host Japan in their final World Cup qualifier. The two sides played out a scoreless draw in Yokohama in February, but nothing less than a win here will silence the critics of both coaches, as two of Asia’s premier sides go head to head in Melbourne.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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