World Cup - Work still to be done for World Cup-bound Japan

Japan once again successfully negotiated an early passage through World Cup qualifying in Asia but the 1-1 draw with Australia highlighted two areas still a cause for concern with 12 months to go until the finals in Brazil.

Reuters
Football - Kagawa: Complacency must not set in
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Japan's midfielder Keisuke Honda (C) and forward Shinji Kagawa (2nd R) celebrate the team's qualificationfor the World Cup after drawing with Australia in Saitama (AFP)

Despite the creative talents of playmakers Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa - the standout players in the continent - the Japanese still struggle for goals against top-level opposition.

The Asian champions dominated possession against the defensive Australians in Saitama on Tuesday but striker Ryoichi Maeda had another off day, while substitute Mike Havenaar also struggled to make an impact in the final stages.

VfB Stuttgart striker Shinji Okazaki did put in another decent performance but Japan's Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni would surely love for more options to finish the numerous chances Kagawa and Honda create.

Zaccheroni called up Masato Kudo for the Socceroos clash but the 23-year-old striker, who has been in supreme form for his club Kashiwa Reysol, will have to wait to make his debut after missing out on selection.

That chance could come in Japan's final qualifier against Iraq in Doha on Tuesday before the trip to Brazil to play in the Confederations Cup as the Asian champions look to arrest the slump in goals in recent matches.

Chances went begging as they lost 2-1 to Jordan in March while they failed to score in a 2-0 home friendly defeat by Bulgaria on Thursday which they dominated.

The friendly loss also featured a terrible error by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and he was again at fault for Australia's goal in Saitama.

A talented shot-stopper, the tall 30-year-old who plays for Standard Liege in Belgium is infamous for his inability to handle crosses.

On Tuesday he flapped at one from Tommy Oar which ended up in the back of the net but his mental strength to bounce back from such errors has helped him maintain his place in the side.

He endured a difficult 2011 Asian Cup before he proved to be the hero in the final, thwarting the Australians throughout the showpiece in Doha before Japan snatched a 1-0 win in extra time.

Having an error-prone goalkeeper and struggling strikers is not ideal for Zaccheroni but the Italian is confident his side can continue to develop the high-tempo attractive football led by Honda and Kagawa that has enabled them to become the first team through to Brazil.

"I came to Japan to bring them to the World Cup - that was my bottom line," the Italian said after the Australia draw sealed qualification.

"I feel relieved that I achieved it. We are going to improve further and surprise the world."

Having surprised France 1-0 in Paris last year, Zaccheroni's Japan showed they are more than capable of mixing it with the top nations and a first quarter-final World Cup appearance is not beyond them in Brazil, such is their burgeoning talent.

But their former coach, Brazilian great Zico, warned that despite the progression there was still plenty for Japan to work on in the next 12 months before the finals.

"Sure, Japan are improving and they are gaining," Zico said last month.

"I think if you look at the numbers, Japan are producing better results against European sides but they still tend to struggle against Central and South American teams.

"I believe there is still plenty to be learned by Japan."

But under the tutelage of Zaccheroni and with sharp students Honda, Kagawa and Inter Milan full back Yuto Nagatomo on the field, Japan can look forward to Brazil and possibly a best ever World Cup finish.

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