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Japan's ascension to the No.1 nation in Asia has coincided with growing concerns for the Socceroos, and Paul Williams believes the Blue Samurai may sit there for some time

GOAL.com Indonesia   OPINION
By
PAUL WILLIAMS


Respect.

It is what everyone craves and, in the case of Japan, it is what they now have from not just Australia and the rest of Asia but also the rest of the world, after the recent exploits of the Nadeshiko and men's Under-23 team at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

'Nippon: Forever in our Shadow' read a large banner at the front of Australia's Green and Gold Army supporters group at the 2009 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the MCG in Melbourne in June 2009.

At the time few, Australians really knew anything about Japanese football, with most only recalling one of Australian football's finest moments - a come-from-behind 3-1 victory in the opening game of the 2006 World Cup in Kaiserslautern.

Despite a poor performance at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, where they were eventually knocked out on penalties by Japan in the quarter-finals, Australians considered themselves to be the kings of Asia, and being the region's highest-ranked team according to FIFA for the better part of the last three years only served to reinforce that.

But that only masked the reality that was quietly operating in the background and which is now beginning to show itself.

Recent performances clearly demonstrate that Japan is far and away the dominant team in Asia.

Four games - three wins and one draw - with 11 goals for and just the one against in the final phase of AFC 2014 World Cup qualifying is impressive in anyone's language.

But it is not simply the numbers that are impressive; it is the way in which Japan has obtained them that has earned them respect. They play a modern, possession-based game that is easy on the eye and, with attacking talent such as Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, they possess the quality in the final third to finish the chances they create. Their 6-0 demolition of Jordan in June is most impressive recent example

It is not just the senior men's national team either - the same system is implemented right across the board, from junior level to the women's game, where it is widely acknowledged that the Nadeshiko are now the benchmark team internationally.

A systematic approach to youth development over the last 20 years has ensured that Japan is now home to a production line of players that not only harbour ambitions of playing in Europe, but are actually doing so and at some of the biggest clubs.

No longer are Japanese players simply marketing gimmicks to try and gain a foothold in 'the Japanese market'.  They are now important cogs in their teams.

Shinji Kagawa is the most high profile example, having completed an off-season move from German champions Borussia Dortmund to English Premier League giants Manchester United.

No fewer than nine players now ply their trade in Germany's Bundesliga, with that number only growing as each transfer window comes and goes. To go with that, there are also four now playing in the bright lights of the Premier League.

It is no coincidence that, as the number of Japanese players in top European clubs grows, so too does the performance of the national team.

Players are more professional and being in an environment of excellence every day has seen them take their game to the next level.

A Socceroos fan holds up his banner during the meeting between Australia and Japan in 2009.  Much has changed since then.

We can compare that to Australia, with less and less of the national team now playing in the top leagues in Europe.

Some would argue, however, it is because, while the players are there, Holger Osieck simply refuses to select them, preferring to stick with the old guard that has served the nation so well over the last seven years.

But whereas generational change has happened in Japan, either by choice or by force, that is not the case with Australia.

The average age of the starting XI from Japan's clash with Iraq on Tuesday was 27.4, with only three members of that team 30 or older.

The oldest player was the masterful Yasuhito Endo at 32; the youngest Hiroshi Kiyotake at 22.

Compare that with Australia, who had an average age of 30.5.

Six of the XI were 30 or older - Mark Schwarzer the oldest at 39 - with Robbie Kruse the youngest at 23.

Japan now find themselves in a dream situation. A squad full of quality players, half of who are playing across Europe, on the right side of 30 who have spent the last two years under Zaccheroni perfecting their game plan.

They go to Brazil - and make no mistake about it, Japan will qualify for Brazil 2014 in a canter - not just making up the numbers but with a realistic hope of making the quarter-finals. And from there, anything is possible.

Australia, who now face a battle just to make it to Brazil, are now struggling with the realisation that it is time for generational change.

But to do so in the middle of a World Cup qualifying campaign - one that it is off to the shakiest of starts - is a big risk.

Should Australia qualify, they then have a choice - stick with the old guard and go to Brazil 2014 [should they qualify] with one of the oldest squads, or qualify with the old guard and then seek to fast-track a number of the next generation into the squad in time for Brazil.  They then risk going to Brazil with a team that is unfamiliar in playing with each other.

Japan has no such issues.

'Nippon: Forever in our Shadows'? Not anymore.

Japan has not only emerged from those shadows but now cast their own large shadow on Australia.

Paul Williams is a contributor to several football websites and is the creator of Asian Football Feast.

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