All eyes are on the Blue Samurai as Japan, ranked favorite in Group B, braces to get past tough Middle Eastern foes in the opening phase of the tournament. Japan plays against Jordan on January 9, at the Qatar Sport Club Stadium.
Japan is taking nothing for granted at the Asian Cup after its best-ever World Cup on foreign soil, as Middle East rivals line up to spoil the Blue Samurai’s bid to regain the continental title.
Japan bowed to fellow three-time champion Saudi Arabia 3-2 in the 2007 Asian Cup semifinals, failing to lift a third straight title, and now the two giants are grouped together with Jordan and Syria in Qatar.
Despite a run of warm-up defeats, the Blue Samurai reached the World Cup last-16 in South Africa in June.
“We are aiming high as a matter of course,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said, citing the country’s World Cup feat and its triumphs in both men’s and women’s tournaments at the Asian Games in November.
But the former AC Milan boss said: “I expect tremendous battles ahead.
“Australia and South Korea may headline the tournament,” he said. “But I feel that teams from the Middle East will be quite formidable as they can fight in conditions quite close to home.”
In its opening game on Jan 9, Japan faces Jordan, whom it narrowly defeated 4-3 on penalties in the 2004 Asian Cup quarterfinals before going on to beat host China for the trophy.
Zaccheroni, who had never coached a national team or foreign club before joining Japan, got off to a convincing start after taking over from homegrown World Cup boss Takeshi Okada.
With the 57-year-old Italian in charge for the first time, Japan upset a full-strength Argentina 1-0 at home and fought to a scoreless draw away with cross-strait rival South Korea in friendlies in October.
“Going out with this line-up, we should not fear any opponent,” Zaccheroni said as he called up eight Europe-based players, including CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda and Borussia Dortmund rookie Shinji Kagawa.
Honda scored in Japan’s wins over Cameroon and Denmark at the World Cup. Japan bowed to the Netherlands 1-0 in the other group match and missed a quarterfinal spot by a penalty shootout loss to Paraguay.
Kagawa, 21, has attracted European clubs by scoring eight goals in the first half of the Bundesliga season after moving from J-League side Cerezo Osaka.
“The Asian Cup will be a tournament where we will demonstrate how much we have improved after the World Cup,” said Honda, known for his aggressive play and straight-talking.
“Of course, there is only one thing we aim for,” said the 24-year-old, who has always vowed to go for the title in any tournament.
Zaccheroni though will be missing World Cup centerbacks Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka through knee injuries, something he called a “great blow”.
But Cesena’s Yuto Nagatomo, Atsuto Uchida of Schalke and Maya Yoshida of VVV Venlo are ready to guard the Samurai’s backline.
“The history of Japanese football won’t end at the Asian Cup. I want to use as many young players as possible to prepare well for the 2014 World Cup,” said the Italian.
Saudis gunning for another Asian crown
Three-time Asian Cup winner Saudi Arabia believes it is time to end its title drought since 1996, with coach Jose Peseiro hoping to put its World Cup heartbreak behind the team.
Peseiro, who kept his job despite the Saudis failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, tested new talent and rested his key players at the Gulf Cup, several weeks before the continental showcase.
The Portuguese tactician insisted it was the right decision although home fans criticized him after the Green Falcons lost to Kuwait 1-0 on Dec 5 in the final of the increasingly popular Mideast tournament.
“The Gulf Cup helped us a lot to know the ability of some new players,” the 50-year-old coach said.
At the 2007 Asian Cup, the Saudis were stunned by dark horses Iraq 1-0 in the final after outlasting fellow three-time champion Japan 3-2 in the semifinals.
Captain Yasser Al Qahtani, a key Saudi striker who scored four goals to share the 2007 Asian Cup golden boot, said his team had a “big incentive to get the Asian title back”.
“Saudi fans don’t accept the runner-up place like the last one. They want no less than the title,” said the 28-year-old Al-Hilal forward, nicknamed “Sniper” for his ability to shoot from anywhere with precision.
“We have a lot of young players in the team capable of playing in this big tournament and we are optimistic to win it in Qatar.”
Al Ittihad forward Naif Hazazi, who turns 22 during the Asian Cup, boosts the Green Falcons’ firepower and has been widely rated as one of the top guns in the Middle East since his international debut two years ago.
Saudi defender Hamad Al Montashari said: “Our group is not easy but I think it will not be tough for us.
“We have big ambitions and our team is favorite,” said the 28-year-old veteran, the 2005 Asian Footballer of the Year, who also won the 2004 and 2005 AFC Champions League titles with Al Ittihad.
Peseiro, a Real Madrid assistant coach in 2003, took the Green Falcons’ helm in early 2009 in the middle of their losing World Cup qualifying campaign and has enjoyed a wealth of talent to choose from the well-heeled Saudi leagues.
He has also managed numerous clubs since 1992 with mixed results, including Sporting CP of Lisbon.
An advocate of Portuguese-style passing football, he has preferred to put five men in midfield but is likely to put two strikers up front in Qatar.
His tactics paid off in mid-November at home when his squad forged scoreless draws with Ghana, World Cup quarterfinalists, and Uganda.
Syria gears up for Cup after coach change
Syria is counting on a stop-gap coach for its Asian Cup campaign after the job changed hands three times in three months, but the new man in charge is determined to help the Eagles soar in time.
“We have a short period but this is not a problem,” Valeriu Tita said in mid-December when he was named Syria’s coach just three weeks before it kicks off its Group B battles against Japan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The 44-year-old Romanian, on loan from Syrian club Ittihad, insisted a few warm-up friendlies would be enough to put the “final touches” on the national squad before its fifth Asian Cup finals, but first since 1996.
Tita replaced Serbian Ratomir Dujkovic after guiding his Aleppo side to win a penalty shootout against Kuwait’s Al Qadsia in the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier club competition, in early November.
Syria Football Association president Farouk Sirriya sacked Dujkovic for failing to return from a vacation at an agreed time ahead of a friendly against Asian Cup holders Iraq away on Dec 18.
A tactician credited for guiding Ghana to the last-16 at the 2006 World Cup, Dujkovic reportedly revolted against the Syrian FA’s decision not to allow him to bring his own coaching staff.
Syria nevertheless took the match 1-0 without him but then lost 1-0 to the same Gulf side four days later at home with Tita in charge for the first time.
Tita may rely on Al-Karamah striker Mohamed Al Zeno, who has scored 14 goals in 36 matches for Syria since 2004, and Sanharib Malki Sabah, a frontman with the Belgian side Lokeren, for goals.
Sirriya admitted it would be a daunting task for the Eagles to reach the Asian Cup knockout stage for the first time. In their Cup debut in 1980, they missed a last-eight berth by one point.
“The 2011 Asian Cup could be the toughest edition for Syria,” he told www.the-afc.com, adding that its clash with Japan “could be our toughest assignment because of their experience in the World Cup”.
He also described fellow West Asians Saudi Arabia and Jordan as “forces to be reckoned with in the group”.
“So, we are not going to leave anything to chance and will do everything to emerge from the group unscathed and ready for the next stages.”
The revolving door of coaches started after Syria qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup under homegrown Fajr Ibrahim.
It won four matches and drew twice – including a 3-2 win over second-placed China – and was the only country to remain unbeaten in any group.
Jordan to surprise big guns in Doha
Underdogs Jordan is raring to spring a surprise at the Asian Cup as it did in a miraculous fightback to clinch only its second-ever berth in the continental showcase.
“We want to be competitive although it will be a tough mission in the group that includes Japan, Saudi Arabia and Syria,” Jordan coach Adnan Hamad said. “But we still have great ambition and hope to pass the first round.”
Both Japan and Saudi Arabia are aiming for a record fourth title.
Veteran goalkeeper Amer Shafia said: “Our goal is to achieve the best possible result from our match against Japan that we will enjoy anyway. We seek to be true competitors.”
The 28-year-old has a score to settle when the Al-Nashima (Brave Ones) face Japan in their Group B opener on Jan 9.
The Blue Samurai sprang back from 2-0 down to beat Jordan 4-3 on penalties with him between the posts in the 2004 Asian Cup quarterfinals in China. Japan went on to beat the host for its third title.
Hamad, a former Iraq national coach who managed Jordanian club Al-Faisaly in 2006, helped turn Jordan’s fortunes in Asian Cup qualifying after he took over the Al-Nashima from Portuguese Nelo Vingada in April 2009.
Jordan had a single point from its first three games, including a goalless draw at home with Thailand, when the 49-year-old Iraqi tactician joined the team.
Under his leadership, the Jordanians lost to Iran 1-0 away but beat it 1-0 at home before another 0-0 draw with Thailand.
Jordan emerged out of the quagmire with a 2-1 home win over Singapore in its last qualifier before which it was still one point behind the two Southeast Asian sides. Iraq beat Thailand 1-0 to finish top of the group.
Hamad, who was named the 2004 Asian coach of the year after guiding Iraq to a fourth-place finish at the Athens Olympics, has brought young players into Jordan’s squad, many of whom took part in the 2007 U-20 World Cup.
He said his team included “players that would not only serve the upcoming Asian Cup but World Cup qualifiers and beyond”.
Abdullah Deeb, a promising 23-year-old striker who rejoined home league side Shabab Al-Ordon last year after a season with Belgium’s KV Mechelen, said: “We want to take our chance and prove ourselves by playing against top teams in the Asian Cup.”
Hamad harbors no illusions about their Group B opponents, particularly Japan.
“Playing against Japan will be very difficult particularly because they have gained a lot of experience from international tournaments,” he said.
The Blue Samurai reached the last-16 in South Africa last June for its best-ever World Cup finish on foreign soil. Jordan got a morale-boosting 4-1 friendly win over Asian Cup holder Iraq at home in September but crashed out in the group stages of the West Asian Championship it hosted in the same month.