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Asian Comment: Early Signs Looking Very Good For Alberto Zaccheroni's Japan

Thanks to solid football and convincing results in his first two games, Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni has quickly earned a spot in the pantheon of the Japanese 'Gods of soccer'.

The media admire him, the fans adore him, the players respect him and are eager to learn from him. His meticulous approach to the job of coaching the Japanese national team has conquered the supporters, who see in him the man who can bring the Samurai Blue to the next level in
world football.

And they might well be right.

Since his arrival in Japan, Zac has shown utter dedication to his job, devotedly studying Japanese soccer and its culture, thus quickly finding a way to effectively communicate with the players and the press. His commitment was evident when, for example, he showed up to watch a J2 (second division) game, on a day the J.League top flight was resting.

Newspapers and magazines have dedicated long articles describing in detail how the Italian coach prepares the games, and in particular how he spends time to explain again and again certain movements to his new players.

His work was rewarded in the first two games, a 1-0 win over Argentina in Saitama and a 0-0 draw with South Korea in Seoul. Japan played on a level with Argentina, one of the best teams in the world; and then proceeded to tame their South Korean rivals in their den.

Zaccheroni built on the excellent frame that Takeshi Okada, after a lot of trial-and-error, had finalised just in time for last summer’s World Cup. The team rotates around a solid midfield that features incredible quality, but also solidity and spirit of sacrifice.

Realising that Japan is yet to produce a top-class striker, Zaccheroni decided to use a player on top as a 'buoy' (either Takayuki Morimoto or Ryoichi Maeda), and had him shadowed by three offensive midfielders (Daisuke Matsui or Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa) that continuously switch position and are always ready to propel themselves towards the penalty area.

The offensive midfielders move throughout the attacking front, but also move compactly with the two holding midfielders, Yasuhito Endo (who gained his 100th cap against Argentina) and Makoto Hasebe, both of whom offer a reliable mix of quantity and quality.

At least three of the five midfielders always play close to each other. Their constant movement provides options for a quick pass to an unmarked player that is then ready to either attack centrally or to distribute the ball on the wings.

The two full-backs, Atsuto Uchida (or Yuichi Komano) and Yuto Nagatomo are licensed to attack whenever there is a chance, and they often contribute to situations such as the one climaxing in Okazaki’s goal against Argentina. In that instance Japan comfortably occupied the last
third of the field with seven players.

Defensively, Zaccheroni faced the two matches without Marcos Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa, the two starting centre-backs that were picked by more than a few journalists for their Best XI in South Africa. The surrogates, Yuzo Kurihara and the minute but metronomic Yasuyuki Konno (a sort of Japanese Cannavaro), perfectly filled in for their more famous colleagues, also thanks to the perpetual movement of the whole team.

Against Argentina, for example, it was not rare to see Kagawa covering the left flank when Nagatomo pushed up the side. The whole defence moved in almost perfect synchronicity, covering every available space in order to contain Lionel Messi and the other South American players.

In Seoul, the defensive phase was even more impressive, conceding to the very aggressive and motivated South Koreans only two good chances in 90 minutes, always with Japan playing manly but clean football that resulted in only a few free-kicks conceded to the opponents.

The end result of the Italo-Japanese alchemy is a dynamic team that is very difficult to overwhelm. Holland and Paraguay struggled against Japan in South Africa, and that was the case for Argentina and South Korea, who met the Samurai Blue under new management.

Proof of Japan toughness comes from the fact that they have conceded only three goals in their last eight games (among them two in South Africa: one spoiled by a hand-ball set-up, the other a doubtful penalty). The limit is clearly the lack of fire-power up front, where the few chances (such as the one not finished off by Keisuke Honda in Seoul) need to be cynically seized.

If the growth witnessed in the last four and a half months will continue under Alberto Zaccheroni, imagine what Japan could do when they finally produce a striker of the calibre of Fernando Torres or Edin Dzeko.

But for now supporters are content enough to see Japan playing their best football ever under a coach they quickly learne to appreciate. Eyes are already set on the Asian Nations Cup that will be centered in Doha (Qatar), a city where in 1993 Japanese soccer was traumatised by a last-gasp elimination from the USA 94 World Cup.

Zaccheroni has probably studied that history already, and he and his team seem ready to rewrite it.