A lot has changed in the Socceroos and Samurai Blue camps since last year's continental decider, with a perception that one side is in decline and the other is on the rise
By Ben Somerford & Dan Orlowitz
Tuesday night marks an important occasion for Asia's top-two ranked footballing sides, as Australia and Japan meet for the first time since the thrilling 2011 Asian Cup final won by the latter in extra time.
Both sides, ranked 24th and 23rd in the world respectively, have proved to be evenly matched in their recent history, with several battles going either way. However, there's a feeling Tuesday's clash could be definitive.
Indeed, since the Doha decider in January last year, the two countries may have both cruised into the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying - Australia topped their group, while Japan were less commanding in their section, finishing second behind Uzbekistan - but there's certainly been an evolution in terms of playing style and personnel. There is a strong perception Australia are a team in decline with an ageing squad, while Japan are on the rise as players like Shinji Kagawa go on to bigger and better things at club level.
So Goal.com has turned to its Australian and Japanese experts to analyse how both sides have changed since the 2011 Asian Cup final.
|AUSTRALIA v JAPAN | Since the 2011 Asian Cup
|Kennedy (8 goals)||TOP SCORER
||Kagawa & Okazaki (6 goals)|
Holger Osieck's side have endured an odd phase since the Asian Cup, with many key members making moves at club level, including skipper Lucas Neill and veterans Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano who've all transferred to lesser leagues. The situation has given rise to the perception of an ageing squad in decline.
Following the fateful Doha defeat, Australia enjoyed a positive run of results in friendlies, including the 2-1 victory away to the mighty Germany, which eased some of the 2010 World Cup pain exacted by Die Mannschaft. However, once World Cup qualifying begun, the fluid football of the Asian Cup was long forgotten as Australia scrambled an 85th-minute winner to sneak past lowly Thailand in their opener. The performance was the start of a concerning trend, as the Socceroos struggled to break down opponents with neat football, instead reverting to some long-ball play, much to the fans' frustration.
Thankfully for Australia, towering striker Joshua Kennedy (who was injured for the 2011 Asian Cup) is suited to this style and thrived, particularly after striking up a good combination with ever-improving energiser bunny Brett Holman - who recently joined Aston Villa. Japan-based Alex Brosque surprisingly emerged too. Their rise has been timely as Tim Cahill is no longer first choice after poor form at club level.
Cahill isn't the only big-name Socceroo whose career is in decline, and this transition is the centre of all of Osieck's problems. Those who've stepped in for Cahill have done the job for now, but they're clearly not as capable as he was in his prime and that's something Australia are finding hard to accept.
Nonetheless, the team's defensive steel - the cornerstone of their success in Qatar - is still led by experienced duo Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neill. Despite Osieck being unable to settle on his preferred back four, the pair's leadership has been integral to the team's success, even if they're no longer as good as they once were.
Despite record-high popularity, Japan’s performances in the past 17 months have not been flawless; Keisuke Honda’s knee injury in late August forced the Samurai Blue to progress through the third round of qualifying without their dynamic playmaker.
|"In 23 matches as coach, Alberto Zaccheroni has brought his side two things they’ve had trouble finding over the past decade: stability and consistency"
While the team still had more than enough talent to overcome the likes of Tajikistan and North Korea, Uzbekistan proved more difficult with their counter-heavy defensive play. The significance of the CSKA Moscow man’s absence was made all too clear by his return to international action as he exploded with four goals in two matches last week.
In 23 matches as coach, Alberto Zaccheroni has brought his side two things they’ve had trouble finding over the past decade: stability and consistency. The Italian’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation is the perfect vehicle for Japan’s never-ending supply of attacking midfielders, with Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo controlling the centre of the pitch.
Zaccheroni has also brought several new players with exciting potential into the fold, including 194-centimetre tall striker Mike Havenaar, powerful right back Hiroki Sakai and gifted attacker Hiroshi Kiyotake. The only position where Japan continue to lack depth is at centre-back, where Yasuyuki Konno remains a starter despite suffering poor form at Gamba Osaka while Maya Yoshida left the match against Jordan on Friday night with a knee injury. Yuzo Kurihara will fill in suitably against Australia, but the situation only underscores the need to produce new talent for the role.
Yet although there have been minor hiccups, this is clearly a Japan with more exclamation points than question marks as they look to take another big step towards Brazil 2014.
Who do you think will Tuesday's huge 2014 World Cup qualifier between Asia's two highest-ranked teams?