Japan and South Korea ready to resume their fierce rivalry once again

The Samurai Blue and the Taeguk Warriors arguably have Asia's greatest rivalry and they'll face off once again on Wednesday just days after Naoki Matsuda's passing
By Ben Somerford & Cesare Polenghi

Alberto Zaccheroni summed up the feeling ahead of Japan's friendly against South Korea in Sapporo on Wednesday, when he said: “It is a friendly but with Korean players the atmosphere won't be very friendly.” However, it's fair to say his own side won't be exchanging niceties either.

Indeed, this is the rivalry that is Japan and South Korea. A rivalry that many would argue is the greatest in Asian football.

We shouldn't forget this clash is contested between the two East Asian nations that shared the hosting rights at the 2002 World Cup. While their current standing as arguably the continent's two strongest sides certainly fuels this bad-blood, there are deep-seated reasons behind the unpleasant atmosphere between the two teams including Japan's 35-year rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

In turn, Korea's domination over Japan in football during the same period and beyond, certainly adds an extra flavour to the tensions. Indeed, while South Korea qualified for the Fifa World Cup in 1954 and won successive Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960, Japan failed to reach their first World Cup until 1998 and lift their first Asian title in 1992.

However, in the past two decades Japan's marked improvements in football have set the rivalry alight, with both nations striving to be No. 1. While Japan have won three Asian Cups since the turn of the millennium, South Korea's exploits in finishing fourth at the 2002 World Cup remains the grandest achievement of them all.

Earlier this year, the two nations resumed their engagement in the 2011 Asian Cup semi-final in Qatar. Japan claimed the honours when they defeated South Korea 3-0 on penalties after a pulsating 2-2 draw.

Wednesday's match is the first meeting of the two nations since and there's already plenty of anticipation with the 67,000-capacity Sapporo Dome sold out for the clash.

Both nations' coaches have called up first-choice squads despite it falling at an awkward time of the European club season. Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp has already expressed his annoyance at Shinji Kagawa's call-up after a foot injury, but admitted there's no stopping the player who desperately wants to play in the match.

"We had feared this would happen. But he wants to go and we can't stop him. I hope he comes back healthy."

- Dortmund spokesman Josef Schneck on Shinji Kagawa's presence despite injury

And both Zaccheroni and Korea's Cho Kwang-Rae have called up strong squads despite the fixture arriving a little under a month away from their first 2014 World Cup qualifiers, when experimenting and trialling players would usually have been at the forefront of their minds.

Indeed, Wednesday's clash is more than a friendly. It's the opportunity to grab bragging rights in the region. The game itself is never a friendly, with the match to be contested fiercely by willing players keen to do their nation proud.

The two nations have actually met four times in the past 18 months, with Korea victorious on two occasions – both in Japan – while the Samurai Blue triumphed in Qatar only on penalties.

However, Japan remain unbeaten since Zaccheroni took charge after the 2010 World Cup and this is the first time these two nations have met since the international retirement of legendary Korean duo Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo.

Cho, who is likely to opt for his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, has another headache after winger Lee Chung-Yong broke his leg playing for Bolton in pre-season recently, with Gamba Osaka's Lee Keun-Ho or Cerezo Osaka's Kim Bo-Kyung likely to replace him.

Zaccheroni, on the other hand, has let few in on whether he'll play a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, nor has he given anything away on the injured Yuto Nagatomo's replacement.

Nonetheless, whoever takes to the field for Japan will be inspired by the memory of former national team defender Naoki Matsuda who sadly passed away aged 34 after a heart attack last week. If ever the rivalry was going to take backseat for a minute, this is it, for a player who starred at the 2002 World Cup hosted by both nations.

However, you just know if the competitive Matsuda is watching on somewhere above, he'd accept no less than Japan getting the better of their old rivals South Korea.