Japan and Australia battle for supremacy
The 2010 FIFA World Cup may be more than a year away, but Japan's upcoming World Cup qualifier with Australia in Yokohama could yield an answer to a question that has left many fans in Asia scratching their heads. Are Japan good enough to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup?
Japan coach Takeshi Okada certainly thinks so. In a video message broadcast in December at the opening of a new sports store in Tokyo, the Sankei Sports daily claimed that Okada drew applause when the normally straight-laced tactician made an uncharacteristically bold statement.
"We will seriously aim to finish in the top four at the World Cup," said Okada - perhaps unaware that his stunning proclamation was about to relayed throughout the region. "Some people may laugh it off but I think it is possible."
What makes Okada's statement all the more unusual is that the Blue Samurai have struggled in World Cup qualifying so far. Their nadir was reached with a 1-0 defeat in the first round of qualifying to Bahrain in Manama, and as if to prove it was no fluke, Bahrain beat Japan by the same score in an Asian Cup qualifier just last month.
Those two defeats have set tongues wagging throughout Asia, particularly with Australia keen to assume the mantle as the region's premier team. They sowed the seeds of an intense rivalry by beating Japan in the group stage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, before the Blue Samurai exacted revenge by knocking out the Socceroos on penalties in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
That Asian Cup appearance proved disappointing for both teams, with West Ham United defender Lucas Neill's claim that Australia would go through the tournament undefeated looking foolish the minute eventual champions Iraq beat Australia in just the second group stage game.
Neill's statement nevertheless seemed to get under Japanese skin, and Japan's players were quick to voice their opinions in the build-up to a fiery Asian Cup quarter-final.
Former Portsmouth keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi claimed that he was "burning for revenge" after Australia's World Cup victory, while defender Yuji Nakazawa bluntly predicted that Japan would win the match 3-0. His prediction didn't quite ring true, but both men proved pivotal in the shoot-out - Kawaguchi saved two penalties before Nakazawa smashed home the winning spot-kick.
Now the burgeoning rivalry is set for another chapter and far from cooling tempers, Japan coach Okada has instead heaped fuel on the fire. "We definitely want to beat Australia and I think it is possible. I want to shut them up," Okada told reporters after his side had thrashed Qatar 3-0 in Doha.
Australia's laconic Dutch coach Pim Verbeek has refused to be drawn into a war of words ahead of the latest clash. Verbeek knows Okada well - the two both coached in the J-League in 2003 - and he will realise that there is little to gain from engaging in pre-match psychological warfare.
All the pressure is on Japan, and having so far taken maximum points in the final round of qualifying, Australia can afford to lose in Yokohama and still cruise through to the finals in South Africa.
Japan are hardly in dire straits themselves, but having announced their grand plans to finish in the top four at the World Cup, they could soon be left with egg on their faces if they are unable to overcome Australia at home. That's partly because the Australian media will be quick to trumpet an away-day win - Australian sporting success is always good for circulation - and partly because Japanese fans have historically had high expectations for their team.
Recent defeats have dampened those expectations, but by the time Japan run out in front 70,000 fans at a packed Yokohama International Stadium, coach Okada will no doubt hope that his players can hold their nerve. They'll be desperate to have wrapped up qualification by the time they travel to Melbourne for their final World Cup qualifier, and with a tricky away trip to Uzbekistan also looming on the horizon, Japan can ill-afford to leave anything to chance.
Australia hardly need any more encouragement themselves. Undaunted by his failed Asian Cup prediction, Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill was confident that his side would finish in the top two of their five-team qualifying group, telling West Ham's matchday program that, "other than the hosts South Africa and Italy, we could be the first team to qualify, which will be a nice statement to make to the world that last time was not a fluke."
Plenty to play for in Yokohama then, where there is much more at stake than just World Cup qualifying points. Both Japan and Australia believe that they can do some damage in South Africa, but they will want to do so as the region's top-ranked side.
Korea Republic fans may of course disagree, but for many Japanese and Australian fans, their upcoming World Cup qualifier in Yokohama could settle some matters of regional supremacy. No hint as yet whether it could answer Japan's other burning question; whether they are good enough to reach the World Cup semi-finals.