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Aug 11, 2011

Samurai Blue cut through Korea

"Japan confirm their status as Asia's best" would make a decent headline for this article. After all, it was good enough for newspapers in both Seoul and Tokyo on Thursday morning as media from both nations reacted to Japan's 3-0 win over their rivals in Sapporo.

The friendly started with a minute's silence for recently deceased Japanese football star Naoki Matsuda and ended with thunderous applause as a confident Samurai Blue put South Korea to the sword in one of the most comprehensive wins seen for some time in this fixture between Asia's biggest rivals.

Shinji Kagawa scored the first before the break and added a second seven minutes after though by that time Keisuke Honda had already added a second. Japan could have scored more but will be just happy with a first win at home over Korea in 13 years.

In Asia, no team goes to Japan expecting to win but South Korea is perhaps the only one to be a little disappointed when it doesn't do so. Just last year, fine victories came in Tokyo in February and Saitama in May, just hours before the two teams left for the World Cup. After the latter, Park Ji-Sung-inspired triumph (more results like this and calls for his return from retirement will not be far behind) , Japanese journalists openly scoffed at then-coach Takeshi Okada and his target of a semi-final place in South Africa. Korean scribes are nowhere near that stage but woke up on Thursday morning feeling a little depressed.

Before the game, Korean coach Cho Kwang-Rae said that the hosts, who had lifted the Asian Cup six months previously, were approaching 'international standard'. From an eastern point of view, that means an ability to match it with the best of the Europeans and South Americans. If there was only a little doubt before the game that Japan has what it takes to take on teams the old continents have to offer, there was none after. The encouraging thing is that under Okada's successor Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan are improving. The Italian has settled the boys in blue into this 4-2-3-1 formation. This is a well-organised team, fairly solid at the back, increasingly fluid going forward and full of confidence.

There are also some very good players for 'Zac' to choose from. Playing behind the main striker alongside Honda and Shinji Okazaki, Kagawa was the star of the show. His brace was made all the sweeter by the fact he missed the second half of last season through an injury sustained in the Asian Cup semi-final against Korea at the start of the year. By the looks of things, the 22-year-old has returned not only to fitness but to the form that saw him become a star of the Bundesliga in the first half of last season with champions Borussia Dortmund. His second could be a belter.

Captain Makoto Hasebe was the epitome of coolness and authority in midfield and didn't put a foot, or a pass, wrong while Honda revelled in the space he was allowed. Japan's ability to keep the ball while moving it around at speed had the opposition on the back foot from the first minute when Okazaki, who scored a spectacular goal for Stuttgart in the opening weekend of the Bundesliga last weekend, tried something similar but curled a shot just over from long range. The former Shimizu S-Pulse man was just one of a growing number of European-based players on display. With Japan missing Inter left-back Yuto Nagatomo, perhaps the team's best player at the Asian Cup.

Korea could point to absences of their own. The team has long been strong down the sides but after the recent retirements of Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung, the left especially has become an issue. Full-back Kim Yong-Chol was withdrawn early in the first half and a creaky defence became downright leaky when replacement Park Won-Jae didn't even make half-time. The right usually belongs to Lee Chung-Yong but like Bolton Wanderers, the Taeguk Warriors will be without the wily wideman for nine months thanks to a broken leg collected in a pre-season friendly. Coach Cho opted not to call young stars Ji Dong-Won and Son Heung-Min to allow them a jetlag-free start to their respective Premier League and Bundesliga seasons and may have regretted that decision as he stood on the sidelines of a bouncing Sapporo Dome.

With a defence cut open time and time again, a midfield outpassed and outclassed and an attack unable to take advantage of what chances were created, there were hardly any positives for Korea to take from this loss with the only caveat that recent results and performances have been good enough not to get carried away over one result - however poor. Korea had been looking good in recent months, and playing some decent stuff, with successive wins over Honduras, Serbia and Ghana on the back of the Asian Cup in which a very young team impressed before coming within a penalty shootout of the final. The same young players need to bounce back for the start of Korea's qualification campaign for 2014 that starts in three weeks with a home match against Lebanon.

If there are now a few clouds of doubt hanging over the southern half of the Korean peninsula there are only clear skies above the Land of the Rising Sun with Brazil clearly visible on the horizon.

Australia Win again in Europe

After friendly victories in the Netherlands and Germany in the recent past, Australia fans are not going to get too excited about a 2-1 win in Wales but it was a good result. Wales were motivated and had summoned a strong squad.

Tim Cahill grabbed the opener and just in case there were going to be any concerns expressed that the Socceroos were still over-reliant on the old guard, 22-year-old Robbie Kruse got the second. The result was not a surprise which, from an Aussie point of view, is perhaps the best part about it.

China down Reggae Boyz

The Chinese media was none too impressed with the choice of opponent for this last warm-up for the first group stage of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. This, remember, is where China has slipped up on the past two occasions. Being put in a relatively easy group has not really calmed any nerves so playing Jamaica ahead of games against Singapore, Jordan and Iraq had the team on a hiding to nothing.

At least the hosts won 1-0 thanks to Zhao Peng though that was little consolation to Coach Gao Hongbo who has now been replaced by former Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho. The move came as no surprise as it has been a badly-kept secret for weeks.

And...

Kuwait did the old 'warm-up for a game against one of the Koreas by arranging a friendly against the other one' routine' and drew 0-0 with the North in a result that surprised nobody. Syria drew 1-1 in Kazakhstan thanks to a goal from Nadim Sabagh, a decent result and a decent warm-up for a tough World Cup group that includes Japan, Uzbekistan and North Korea while Oman and Bahrain drew 1-1.

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