Sat, Jan 26, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Japan launch qualifying campaign

AFP , TOKYO

Japan national soccer team head coach Takeshi Okada, front center, and his players pose in their new official kit at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

Japan this weekend launch their campaign for a fourth straight World Cup appearance, taking on Chile and Bosnia in their first matches under new coach Takeshi Okada.

The friendlies against Chile today and Bosnia on Wednesday are meant to tune up ahead of Japan's first qualifying game against Thailand on Feb. 6.

Japan and Thailand are in Asian Group Two with Bahrain and Oman. The top two teams go on to another qualifying round for a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Japan's 25-man squad will be spearheaded by former Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara, who has just left Germany for Asian club champions Urawa Reds.

"We have three games and so I chose players I'll need for all three of them. We can have only 18 against Thailand, so I thought it's better to have players who can play several positions," Okada said.

Okada has so far not called up Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who has ongoing commitments in the Scottish Premier League.

The international games will be Okada's first since he took over from Bosnian coach Ivica Osim, who suffered a serious stroke in November. Osim is expected to make his first public appearance since his stroke to watch Japan play his homeland.

"We won't change our strategy whether Mr Osim comes to watch or not. It's always the same. Whenever we play a game, we are determined to play our best. That's the way we can improve," Okada said.

Okada, the first Japanese to coach the national team in nearly a decade, has said he wants the Japanese to make use of their strengths such as technique and work around weak spots, including by avoiding aggressive clashes.

It will be the first time that Japan play Chile, whose Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is looking for his third win in seven games since taking over the national team in August last year.

The squad, whose country is in the midst of summer, have been training in Japan in a bid to get the players used to the near-freezing temperatures.

"If we run around enough, I think we'll be calmer. We've got to get used to the weather," goalkeeper Christopher Toselli said.

In the 10-nation South American qualifying round, Chile have one win, one draw, two defeats and lie in seventh place. They next take on Bolivia on June 16.

Bielsa was coach of Argentina from 1998 until 2004 and was at the helm during Argentina's disastrous first round exit at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

He ended his tenure at the Argentine national team by guiding the country to the Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004, as well as the Copa America final that same year.

Okada, who led Japan into their debut World Cup in 1998, may secretly hope to avenge his 1-0 loss to Bielsa's Argentina in France where Japan crashed out with three straight defeats.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, who named the country's former soccer star Meho Kodro the new national coach earlier this month, have played Japan only once before, a game that ended in a 2-2 stalemate in Dortmund, Germany back in December 2006.

They were drawn with Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Armenia and Estonia in European Group Five which starts in August, from which the top team will automatically qualify for the World Cup.

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