Asian rivals will target last 16 berths

Posted by John Duerden

Japan and South Korea’s semifinal meeting at the 2011 Asian Cup -- a fabulous advert for Asian football bursting with quality, drama and excitement that Japan won on penalties -- was the most watched single event on television in both countries for that year and encapsulated the rivalry between the nations.

It was also an occasion which indicated that, in recent times, Japan has caught up with Korea in recent times and in many respects has overtaken its nemesis.

It was not always the case. In the 1950s, it was the Taeguk Warriors and not the Samurai Blue who were winning Asian Cups and playing the Mighty Magyars of Hungary on the global stage.

By 1986, Korea was starting a run that now extends to qualification for eight consecutive World Cups and had a professional league in its fourth season. It was to be seven years until the J-League started, and it was not until 1998 that Japan took its bow on international football’s biggest stage.

Assessing classic rivalries ahead of the World Cup
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Now the J-League is the best in Asia, off the pitch at least, and even Korean fans admit that. Attendances are healthy and clubs tend to have excellent relationships with their local communities, two areas that can best be described as erratic a little to the west.

It is more debatable in terms of standards on the pitch. Again, Korean fans would admit that the J-League is more technical but argue that K-League teams are more balanced and stronger overall and point to their superior record in Asian club football as evidence.

Alberto Zaccheroni coach Japan shoutAllsportZaccheroni is preparing to lead Japan in a World Cup for the first time.

Beyond that, however, the Samurai Blue have sent an increasing number of players to the major European leagues, have been enjoying a period of stability under coach Alberto Zaccheroni and have travelled the world in search of tough opposition.

Korea, meanwhile, is on its third coach -- Hong Myong-bo -- in two years and has seen a number of exports drop down to the English championship or head to the Middle East. Moreover, it has rarely ventured out of East Asia for matches.

It is this stability and a greater depth in midfield talent that currently gives Japan the edge over its rivals. It also enjoys superiority in the fullback department with the experienced pairing of Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida providing a contrast to unusual Korean struggles in this area.

In addition to Man United’s Shinji Kagawa, Japan also has Asia’s best player in Keisuke Honda, who pulls the strings in attack. Under Hong, Korea are improving after a couple of turbulent years but is playing catch-up.

In 2010, both teams carried the Asian flag into the second round only to lose narrowly to South American opposition: Uruguay beat Korea while Japan fell on penalties to Paraguay.

In Brazil, both should be able to get out of the group -- still seen as the basic measure of success in Tokyo and Seoul -- but once in the knockout stage, it is Japan that has the greater chance of going further.

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