Saturday 29 January 2011

Asian Cup Special 11 – Japan vs. Australia final preview



Japan’s preparations for Saturday’s Asian Cup final against Australia have been rocked by the news that midfielder Shinji Kagawa has been forced to return to Germany after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

The injury, sustained late in the second half of the dramatic semi-final with South Korea on Tuesday, comes as a major blow to both club and country with early prognoses suggesting the Borussia Dortmund star could also miss the remainder of the Bundesliga season.

Predictably, Friday’s pre-match press conference was dominated by questions over who could possibly replace a player who has risen to the status of national team talisman just six months after missing out on the World Cup squad altogether. While acknowledging the “headache”, however, Samurai Blue boss Alberto Zaccheroni was quick to reemphasise his faith in the backup members available.

“It’s very disappointing for the team and for Kagawa himself as well,” said the Italian. “He contributed a lot on the way to the final and he was getting better and better so it’s a real shame. But I know who's going to replace him; I know him well and I trust him.”

Zaccheroni refused to elaborate on his selection, but there would appear to be three strong candidates for the role of Kagawa’s understudy. Yosuke Kashiwagi deputised for the injured Keisuke Honda in the centre of the attacking midfield three for the group stage match with Saudi Arabia, and could either fill in on the left or reprise his earlier role with Honda moving out wide.

Jungo Fujimoto is a more natural wide player and was strongly considered to play on the right against the Saudis – with Shinji Okazaki switching flanks – but this idea was abandoned and the new Nagoya Grampus signing has still only made one momentary substitute appearance all competition.

The third alternative is defensive midfielder Hajime Hosogai, who scored his first international goal in extra time against South Korea having come off the bench to replace Kagawa. His inclusion would either see Yasuhito Endo pushed further forward or, more radically, a temporary return to the 4-3-3 system used by previous coach Takeshi Okada in South Africa to help cope with the greater physicality of the Australians.

The current Japan manager was understandably keener to focus on the positives, having led his side to an Asian Cup final just four months after taking charge.

He declared, “I am very satisfied to make the final and I like the way we got here. I give the credit to our players because we had many difficult matches. There are many qualities to our football so it’s difficult to pick one; but maybe it’s the togetherness of this team. The spirit of this team is fantastic. It makes me proud to be in charge.

“I tell the players to respect other teams but not be scared of them. I think they understand that and they will have that attitude.”

Zaccheroni also described the experience in Qatar as the first step within a long-term plan for his era in charge.

“I wanted this team to get more experience here, especially to improve the young players through this competition. The goal is to make a good team for the World Cup.”

Kagawa told reporters that he was “extremely upset” as he departed from Doha on Thursday, but added “I believe Japan will still win in my absence. If they continue to play their game and enjoy themselves, they can certainly take victory”.

The only other selection question is whether or not Maya Yoshida earns a recall in central defence at the expense of Daiki Iwamasa, after a red card against the host nation in the last eight ruled the VVV Venlo man out of the semi-final. Shinji Okazaki’s participation in training has been limited after suffering from fatigue, but this is not expected to affect his hopes of playing against Australia.

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Socceroos boss Holger Osieck watched his charges hammer 10-man Uzbekistan 6-0 in the second semi-final, and has a wealth of experience to draw upon after leading J. League giants Urawa Reds to the Asian Champions League crown in 2007. The German was also assistant manager when his home nation won the World Cup in 1990, and took Canada to a surprise victory in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

“Knowledge is one thing but to put it into action is another,” insisted Osieck. “Japan definitely have a strong team; they have a new generation coming up, a lot of talent, and technically very potent players so I expect a challenging game.

“I have a very great impression of the Japanese team playing as a unit. Of course Kagawa is a great player, but I think the Japanese coach definitely has another trick up his sleeve.”

Australia have the better of the head-to-head record with seven victories to Japan’s five from their 16 matches to date, and came from behind to win 2-1 the last time the teams met in a World Cup qualifying dead rubber in 2009.

Their only previous Asian Cup campaign, however, ended in a penalty shootout defeat to Japan at the quarter-final stage, while the Samurai Blue will also be looking for a record fourth continental title in just seven finals appearances.

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South Korea survived an Uzbekistan fightback to win the third-place playoff 3-2 and, in doing so, seal qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.


AFC Asian Cup third-place playoff result
South Korea 3-2 Uzbekistan

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