Old Rivals Meet With New Faces On Board

South Korea v Japan

South Korea v Japan.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt but that is not the feeling that will be paramount at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Tuesday when South Korea meet Japan for the third time this year. Although the World Cup is still fresh in the memory, both nations are looking firmly forward to the Asian Cup that starts in less than three months.

It is barely three months since the two teams left South Africa in high spirits after reaching the second round for the first time ever on foreign soil.

That was a very pleasant surprise for fans and media in Japan. If you were present at the National Stadium in Tokyo on May 25, you would have seen the men in blue lose at home to Korea for the second time in a matter of weeks. The 2-0 victory for the Taeguk Warriors flattered the hosts rather than the visitors and the Samurai Blue left the field amid the familiar contemptuous jeers of the home support. Japan’s preparations for South Africa had been almost disastrous with defeat following defeat and the entire nation was planning for the pain that was sure to come under the African sun.

It didn’t happen as Japan shocked those back home and a fair few others around the world by winning two of its three group games against Cameroon and then, memorably, against Denmark. A 3-1 win over the Europeans included two masterful free-kicks from the feet of Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo that sent Samurai Blue screaming into the last sixteen. A place in the last eight beckoned but Paraguay triumphed in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of soccer ended goalless.

Suddenly beleaguered coach Takeshi Okada was a hero though he had already decided not to stay on in the Tokyo hotseat. He was eventually replaced by Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni and this is the second game for the former AC Milan and Juventus boss. As well as a different tactician on the bench, this is a different Japan team than the one which limply lost to its bitter rival in February and May and it is one that has just defeated Argentina.

“My mission is to cultivate Japanese talent on a long-term basis. I’m going to build a team with sights set on the World Cup in Brazil.” said Zaccheroni. “The new players have shown good performance this month and I and my staff observed this. I want to emphasize a balance between attack and defense.”

Alberto Zaccheroni.

That attack is led by Honda, one of the stars of South Africa. He may be the best known but he is just one of a new influx of Japanese stars in Europe impressing their new fans. Shinji Kagawa didn’t even go to the World Cup but the former Cerezo Osaka midfielder is wowing the fans at German giants Borussia Dortmund.

Kagawa is just starting out in the big leagues while Park Ji-sung has been playing out west for eight years now. Still only 29, the Manchester United man told me recently that he is determined to help Korea win the Asian title for the first time since 1960, a poor record for a team that boasts the continent’s best World Cup record.

That team is about to play its third game under new coach Cho Kwang-rae. Coach Cho has overseen one win, against Nigeria in Suwon in August, and one loss, against Iran in Seoul last month. A second successive defeat at home would put Cho on the backfoot but a win and all would be looking good ahead of games at the Asian Cup with Australia, Bahrain.

Much of the talk before the match was on how Cho would utilise Park Ji-sung. The Manchester United man had been a little isolated in attack against Iran and the coach planned to move him back to midfield. A knee injury has ruled the player out of the match.

Instead Cho hopes that a number of young players that have been impressing at home can make a difference.

“Players like Kim Shin-wook, Yoo Byung-soo and Koo Ja-cheol among others, are capable players with many positive features to their games,” said Cho at a press conference yesterday. “I’ve been watching their play in the K-League consistently and selected them because of their solid play.”

A good result is always needed against Japan but with the Asian Cup looming ever closer, there is more at stake than regional pride. Continental glory is just around the corner.

© John Duerden & Soccerphile

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