Thursday, July 19, 2007

Japan Turn Up The Heat In Hanoi

And so the hand-wringing tension continues as the Socceroos prepare to take on the might of Japan in the Asian Cup quarter final.

Reading the press throughout the widespread panic and hysteria that followed Australia’s dismal first two group games of the Asian cup against Oman and Iraq, one thing has been made patently obvious. The Socceroos cope a lot better with the pressure Japan are currently trying to heap on them than they do when the pressure comes from their own press and fans.

A relaxed Harry Kewell gave his post match interview after a relieving 4-0 win against Thailand taking Australia past the group stage. He would have us believe that the squad knew they would pull out of their funk, harmony within the squad was never an issue and media rumours of the team’s demise were greatly exaggerated. This may well be true, but they were putting on a mighty good act. Make no mistake, the team and its coaching staff were feeling the heat, no pun intended. No professional group of footballers wants to be part of a humiliating early exit, especially not one that readily accepted its “favourite” tag before the tournament.

The Thai game was by no means as dominant a performance by the Socceroos as the score suggests, but goals, plus a few solid individual performances will have done the teams self belief a world of good, and more importantly, helped them overcome their first hurdle. Themselves. Now it is time to take on one of the true Asian superpowers in Japan and put the demons of the group stage behind them.

The Blue Samurai are doing their very best to unnerve Australia. The stealthy and cultured playmaker Nakamura famously making the point that “"Australia are not Asian. They are similar to Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia, […] We can demonstrate our finesse against such opponents and I'm looking forward to it.". Read between the lines and the insinuations are obvious. Kawaguchi forces home the point, "Their individual skills remain very high. They shoot the ball off the feet of goalkeepers. They often make final assaults with long balls,".

Japan clearly feel that they were the better side in Kaiserslautern last year and it seems that their adherence to a pseudo Brasilian game has also brought a pride in their short passing, technical style. Whilst the comments made by Nakamura and Kawaguchi regarding the Australian long ball game are at best exaggerated and at worst a lazy stereotype, they may not be too far from pinpointing what will define Saturdays game.

Japan will want to pass the ball and force Australia to chase in the Hanoi heat. If they can maintain extended periods of possession early on in the match it will be an uphill struggle for the Socceroos. Serious doubts have to be raised about Japan’s ability to do this against a physically dominant side. Giving Vietnam a footballing lesson in the 4-1 group stage win is an entirely different proposition to facing an aggressive and physical Socceroos side, particularly one spurred on by their early tournament scare and the jibes emanating from the Japanese camp. The key to Australia’s game is whether or not our central midfield will finally show its mettle. Jason Culina and Vince Grella have been disappointing thus far but will be the key to this match if Graham Arnold, the Australian coach, persists with the duo. If they can minimise the influence of Nakamura and to a lesser extent, deep midfielder Suzuki, it’s likely that Australia will be in the running.

We wait with baited breath.

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