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Bumpy road required for Japan

Less than five minutes after Japan had clinched qualification to the 2014 World Cup on June 4, the players and coach had microphones thrust in their faces. Ecstatic fans, of which there were 63,000, were hanging on their every word, of which there weren't many. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni shyly said "thank you" and Yasuhito Endo loudly shouted "thank you everybody". Keisuke Honda - whose last-minute penalty sealed the Brazil deal - got the biggest cheer of the evening with his promise to win the Confederations Cup.

The strains of "time to say goodbye" were heard over and over again as the players wandered around Saitama Stadium for their lap of honour. The feeling was very much bon voyage to Brazil but it was nothing to do with 2014 - there will be plenty of games on home soil before then. The Confederations Cup was a big deal for Japan and an opportunity to show once and for all that they could mix it with the best of the world, anywhere in the world.

And it really was the best. The group was so tough that people realised that the Group of Death had become such an over-used cliche that it could not do it justice. There was Brazil in Brazil with much to prove, Italy and then Mexico. For a team from the very Far East that struggles to find time to play outside Asia, it was never going to be easy, even without the fact that the Samurai Blue flew in from the Middle East jetlagged and exhausted just 48 hours before the opening game against hosts who had been preparing for years.

In the end though, most see only the three defeats from three games. And perhaps they should. This is how teams are judged. Such a record is not what the champions of Asia should be happy with. To suggest otherwise would be patronising and the patronisation point has been passed.

It came in parts, though, after the Italy game in which Japan had their opponents on the ropes, only to lose 4-3. Many of the reports were along the lines of a Norwich City running a Manchester United close. There were a few pats on the head but then most of the attention was on the failings on the big boys. Yet from a technical point of view, Japan were clearly superior. This was the champions of the world's largest continent, full of talented players active in some of Europe's best leagues giving a footballing lesson to the Azzurri - for a time at least - before getting a bigger one right back between the eyes.

The players knew well what that lesson was. "Even if you play well, if you lose it doesn't mean a thing," Shinji Okazaki said. Shinji Kagawa agreed: "If you are unable to preserve a lead, you end up with nothing. What a waste." The question is, did Zaccheroni? He sounded a little too satisfied. "They did what was asked of them, especially given that they were playing against the runners-up from Euro 2012 and one of the favourites for this tournament," he said. "We're heading back home disappointed, but with our heads held high."

The players only did half of what was asked of them. They did the hard part and took a 2-0 lead but failed to defend it. Perhaps Zac was following many Asian national team coaches who hail from Europe or South America and end up facing their home nations. Some go all out for victory but most are content with respectable defeat. If the patronisation point has been passed then giving famous European and South American teams too much respect should also have been left behind.

Back in Japan, there is a feeling that he too is not doing what is asked of him. For the first time in his almost three years in Tokyo, the Italian has been criticised. There are issues. The defence is the obvious one. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima actually made less saves (eight) than goals he conceded (nine). The central defence was softer than Kinugoshi Tofu, with set pieces a particular threat. It made some nostalgic for Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa -the all-action, tough-tackling, header-winning central defensive duo of the 2010 World Cup. They may be past their best but fans find themselves yearning for a bit of leadership and decisiveness at the back.

When results go badly, strengths become weaknesses. Just weeks ago, Japan were the stable example for Asia to follow after breezing through qualification for 2014. Why inject new blood into a body that seemed to be glowing with health? But in Brazil, there were signs of fatigue. Even when losing to Mexico in a pointless final game, Zaccheroni failed to make significant changes to his tried, tired and still trusted team. The example of Zico has been cited. Like the Italian incumbent, the Brazilian also won the Asian Cup in impressive fashion. He then stayed largely loyal to a squad that paid him back to the tune of one point at the 2006 World Cup.

The East Asian Championship starts next week and comes at a good time. European stars are unavailable for the games against South Korea, China and Australia. It is a perfect chance to try J-League hopefuls in an environment that is about as competitive as friendlies get. A little more competition for the regulars would not go down too badly.

And the same goes for the Japan national team. The Confederations Cup showed that the Samurai Blue need tougher tests in their own backyard. This mini-tournament in Korea is not a big deal in its own right but comes at the right time. The hosts have a new coach eager to put the Taeguk Warriors back on track, Australia are also looking for some local talent to break through and China would love to bounce back from bad results by beating old rivals.

That's for the short-term. Looking further ahead, more varied challenges are necessary - such as the one Italy provided after 30 minutes in Recife. With his team on the ropes, Cesare Prandelli removed Alberto Aquilani for the more direct Sebastian Giovinco who helped to end Mario Balotelli's less than splendid isolation in attack. Japan need more of the varied attacking play that the best teams offer. They need more of the challenge of playing against teams who can keep possession even better than they can. They need to play teams who make the running and attack. Familiarity will not breed contempt but at least will bring a realisation that Japan have what it takes to beat the best. Respect is fine, deference no longer is.

The Confederations Cup was a shock to Japan but it did not change the fact that the talent is there to go far next summer. What it did do however was show that there is still lots of work to do. The road to World Cup success starts in East Asia next week.


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