Japan Camp Focus – Goal drought causing concern for Samurai Blue

Japan have had a dismal build up to the World Cup by any team’s standards, having failed to win a single warm-up match in preparation for just their fourth finals. Their final warm-up match against Zimbabwe on Thursday ended goalless, extending Japan’s goal drought to just one goal in five games. The Samurai Blue’s form before their World Cup warm-ups was no better either, having finished third in the East Asia Championships behind China and Korea Republic.

Coach Takeshi Okada has been subject to intense criticism from the Japanese Press of late. After the country’s humiliating warm-up defeat to rivals South Korea, Okada claimed that he would offer to resign, before backtracking on his comments the next day saying they were in jest despite the Press conference coming at the squad’s lowest point for decades. Okada claims he is aiming for the quarter-finals at least, a largely optimistic target considering recent form.

Japan will be desperate to banish the demons from their humiliating 2006 World Cup campaign in which they failed to win a single match in what was their third ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals. Their first was in 1998, where in Okada’s first reign as Coach they lost all three of Japan’s group games that led to his departure.

Okada was re-appointed in 2007, after Ivica Osim, who unlike Okada was respected by fans and media alike, was forced to leave the post due to ill health. Their best show at a World Cup came when they co-hosted the tournament with South Korea, when they got out of the group stage to reach the second round of the tournament, before losing to eventual third-place Turkey.

Japan’s goal-shy strike-force has been key to their struggles, and has led to midfield talisman Keisuke Honda being set to start in attack for the group games. Japan’s usual front pairing failed to produce a single goal in their warm-up matches, in which they failed to win. Honda has replaced former Celtic man Shunsuke Nakamura as the nation’s star man, who like Nakamura is renowned for his set-plays. Since his 2008 debut, Honda has played 12 matches for the Samurai Blue, scoring four goals, but has failed to find the net since March.

CSKA Moscow star Honda hit out at the Japanese journalists for unnecessary negativity, in the wake of a largely disappointing World Cup build up. In preparation for their tournament opener against Cameroon on June 14, Japan has lost games against South Korea, Serbia, England and Ivory Coast. But Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda lamented the journalist’s for creating the negative mood within the camp rather than Coach Okada. At a Press conference Honda said: “You think we’re going to lose three straight group matches, don’t you? If we play thinking we have nothing to lose, it would do us good. If we attack the opponents where it hurts them most, it will lead to scoring chances. We want to give all we have as this event takes place just once in four years.”

Beyond form, the squad is very good technically and can move the ball better than any other Asian side. They boast a strong midfield with Nakamura and Honda notorious for delivering deadly set-pieces. They also possess a strong defence, with the big physical defensive pair of captain Yuji Nakazawa and Brazilian born Marcus Tulio. The duo can cause problems from set-pieces as England found out after Tulio gave Japan a shock lead in their warm-up encounter scoring from the corner kick. The Samurai Blue also have attacking full-back Atsuto Uchida in their ranks who can get forward at speed.

For all their quality technically however their weakness in front of goal have become a serious issue for Okada. Okada’s preferred front pairing of Yoshito Okubo and Keiji Tamada are anything but prolific, meaning Japan may have to rely on the strength from corners and free-kicks to come close to qualifying.

The key man for Japan will no doubt be Keisuke Honda, who since his €9m transfer to CSKA Moscow has proven himself as a quality attacking midfielder for any side. Despite his recent goal drought, he will no doubt be a threatening to score and create for his teammates.

Japan will face Cameroon, Netherlands and Denmark in Group E and are the lowest ranked side in the group at 43, 17 places behind closest Denmark.

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