If Japan coach Takeshi Okada wanted a tough run out for his players at the fourth East Asian championships in Tokyo, he’s got it.
As the jeers rained down on the Samurai Blue from all quarters of Ajinomoto Stadium following their scoreless draw with China last Saturday, Okada could have been forgiven for cracking a wry smile.
Japan’s friendly schedule in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup finals has been blasted by those who claim that a lack of genuinely competitive fixtures continues to hamper the national team.
However, there’s no lack of competition at the four-team East Asian championships – although the hosts will be expected to hammer Hong Kong at the National Stadium on Thursday.
Shorn of their overseas stars – coach Okada Togel Hongkong selected an entirely local-based squad for the tournament – last weekend Japan found themselves unable to breach Yang Zhi’s goal in front of a partisan Tokyo crowd.
Things would have been even worse had veteran goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki not saved Yang Hao’s weak penalty attempt with eight minutes remaining.
The 0-0 stalemate was the second in a matter of days, after Japan turned in an insipid display in a scoreless draw with Venezuela in friendly in Oita on February 2.
Now the Samurai Blue turn their attentions to a Hong Kong side that was thrashed 5-0 by Korea Republic in their opening match, with coach Okada no doubt hoping that his strikers can rediscover their goal scoring form against the South-East Asian minnows.
Despite claiming that his team are capable of reaching the semi-finals in South Africa, Okada remains a largely unloved figure in his home country.
His blustering predictions belie frustratingly cautious tactics that have left fans despairing for a consistent goal scorer who can finish off Japan’s often intricate build-up play.
Unless Okada unveils a regular goal scorer, Japan could be on the first plane home from South Africa rather than troubling the big guns in the knock-out stage.
The clash with Hong Kong represents the first step in rehabilitating Okada’s fading image, however a much tougher test awaits.
On Sunday the hosts meet arch-rivals Korea Republic in a Valentine’s Day blockbuster, and more catcalls await should Japan fail to win – and win convincingly – against their bitter East Asian foes.
UEFA Euro 2012 Qualifying Draw
Group A: Germany, Turkey, Austria, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan
Group B: Russia, Slovakia, Eire, Macedonia, Armenia, Andorra
Group C: Italy, Serbia, N.Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Faroe Islands
Group D: France, Romania, Bosnia-Hrzg., Belarus, Albania, Luxembourg
Group E: Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Moldova, San Marino
Group F: Croatia, Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia, Malta
Group G: England, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Wales, Montenegro
Group H: Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Cyprus, Iceland
Group I: Spain, Czech Rep., Scotland, Lithuania, Liechtenstein
The nine group winners and best runner-up qualify automatically. The eight remaining second-place teams play-off to decide the final four qualifiers. Ties take place between September 2010 and November 2011.
PALACE OF CULTURE & SCIENCE, WARSAW – Like Georgia & Russia, Armenia & Azerbaijan could not be drawn against each other for political reasons, so it was a humorous moment when Polish soccer legend Zbigniew Boniek kick-started the afternoon by drawing the Caucasian neighbours against each other.
Boniek picked the teams along with compatriot Andrzek Szarmach and Ukrainian legends Oleg Blokhin and Andriy Shevchenko.
Little stirred amongst the watching press pack and UEFA blazers until the final pot containing Europe’s big guns was opened. Germany will renew acquaintances with two familiar countries it knocked out of Euro 2008 – Austria and Turkey. The clash with Turkey is sure to be hot one given the huge Anatolian expat presence in Germany; Belgium will hope to sneak in behind these neighbourly disputes as it seeks to become one of the major European footballing nations again, as it was in the 1980s.
Group B’s drawing provided the biggest sighs in the hall as all neutrals were praying for a repeat of France against the Republic of Ireland. Russia were drawn instead and will be eager to bounce back after missing the boat for South Africa; Slovakia, the only World Cup qualifier among them, provide the main opposition to those two.
Italy’s Marcello Lippi chose to stay at home, leaving Angelo Petruzzi to answer questions, and Lippi will be pleasantly surprised, although World Cup qualifiers Serbia and Slovenia will provide real tests for the Azzurri away from home.
France in reality got lucky with a kind draw: Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina are far from the worst teams they could have faced.
Group E should be no trouble for the Netherlands, while Sweden and Hungary renew acquaintances after their mutually unsuccessful World Cup qualifying attempts. Sweden also have a Scandinavian border derby with Finland to look forward to.
Euro 2004 winners Greece have an even chance of returning to the finals having been drawn into a balanced-looking group containing Croatia, Israel, Latvia and Georgia, while England will be confident of topping Group G ahead of Switzerland. Fabio Capello’s men also have a mini return to the days of the Home Championship with Wales to play twice.
Winning Group H looks tough for Portugal, who struggled in the World Cup qualifiers; Carlos Queiroz is surely hoping the local derbies between Denmark and Norway end in two ties. Finally, reigning champions Spain should have safe passage from Group I where the Czechs and the Scots will battle it out for second place.
Europe’s middle-ranking nations still provide the occasional shock such as Ukraine’s quarter-final finish in the 2006 World Cup or Turkey’s semi-final run at Euro 2008, but there do not seem to be enough sleeping giants to call any of the groups a group of death. As of now, the lineup for 2012 right now looks like being the cast of usual suspects.