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May 16, 2006

Zico's bold move represents last throw of dice

TOKYO, May 16 (Reuters) - It took him four years to get tough, but Japan coach Zico's bold selection of five strikers for the World Cup also represents a final throw of the dice.

The Brazilian axed Tatsuhiko Kubo and Takayuki Suzuki and included Seiichiro Maki and Keiji Tamada among his 23-man squad in a bid to end Japan's woeful form in front of goal.

With Kubo worryingly prone to injury and the Serbian-based Suzuki no longer an automatic choice, Zico's decision made sense even if Maki himself was shocked by Monday's announcement.

'I watched it on TV and was stunned,' Maki told reporters. 'But I'm not going to Germany on vacation. I want to do my bit and help us win our matches.'

Zico, who steps down after the World Cup, has shown little inclination for springing surprises in his four years in charge of Japan - until ditching Kubo.

In reality, there is little risk in selecting Maki, who has scored three goals in nine games for Japan but played no part in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.

His inclusion could provide a welcome shake-up to a Japan team, who finished last in the recent three-team Kirin Cup behind Scotland and Bulgaria.

Zico's front-line strikers are likely to be German-based Naohiro Takahara and former Sampdoria forward Atsushi Yanagisawa, who is on the mend after suffering a broken metatarsal.

ATTACKING PROBLEMS

Grenoble's Masashi Oguro has also been called up but none of Japan's five attackers will strike terror into opposing defenders at the World Cup.

Japan's 0-0 draw with Scotland at the weekend in their last game at home before leaving for Germany demonstrated how serious their attacking problems -- and at precisely the wrong time.

The Asian champions take on Australia in their World Cup opener on June 12 and their task only gets harder with matches against Croatia and holders Brazil.

Simply advancing from Group F would be seen as a major accomplishment for Japan, who reached the last 16 on home soil under Frenchman Philippe Troussier four years ago.

'I'm not going to shirk the responsibility,' declared Zico. 'I take full responsibility for the squad. I've chosen the best squad for Japan and I'm confident of their ability.'

Japan's World Cup run-in involves games against tournament hosts Germany in Leverkusen on May 30 and Malta in Dusseldorf on June 4. They can expect little charity from the Germans.

Zico can at least field a full-strength side for those matches and with Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura back in the midfield, he will hope Japan's creative spark returns.