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2 Days to Azadi
The Japan National Team arrived in Tehran yesterday to a huge crowd of media and football fans yesterday. Having taken off their neckties to show respect for the Islam culture, the group had trouble navigating their way through a mass of people who were there to get comments and photos of the players as well as Iranian football supporters who were there to start putting pressure on the rival team with cat-calls. Things are definitely starting to heat up.

The Japan NT have had their share of unexpected trouble already, with numerous players carrying injuries. The most recent victim is Toshiya Fujita (mf/Jubilo), who was sent home when it was decided his calf injury would leave him unable to play in the match. Atsushi Yanagisawa (fw/Messina, SerieA) was called up suddenly to fill in. Yana has not played with the NT since July of last year (Jpn vs. Serbia). It also seems that Keiji Tamada (fw/Kashiwa) has also injured his calf muscle. Takayuki Suzuki (fw/Antlers) is also in rehab and will probably not start in the game.

With two players out of the game due to yellow cards (Alex Santos sidehalf/Reds, Makoto Tanaka df/Jubilo), goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Jubilo) out to injury, and various current members carrying injuries, we already knew we would be seeing a different lineup for the game. However, now with the Europe-based players joining the team this Monday the starting lineup is looking even more unfamliar from what we've gotten used to in the past year.

The two big hurdles this team faces are 1.) the inclusion of Euro-based players who have not played all together in a long time, and 2.) the transition to a 4-back system.

The overall worry that permeates both of the above issues is whether the team can digest all the "new" things. Seigo Narazaki, goalie, has not played with defense organizer Tsuneyasu Miyamoto since June of last year. Atsuhiro Miura will be taking Alex Santos's place as left sideback. Miura is a different type of player from Santos, a veteran with stronger defensive abilities as well as a different type of kick. It is predicted that Iran will come on very offensively, and the focus will be how well the players can get their defensive understanding down. Iran is characterized by players with a high level of individual talent as well as a greater shot range than what Japan has been used to seeing in Asian teams.

The Iran team is expected to show up with a 4-2-3-1 formation (though in practice it is more of a 4-2-1-3). To care for the 3 forward-type players, Japan has to convert to the 4-back in order to have numerical advantage. But Japan has not started with a 4-back formation in a true battle since the Singapore game over a year ago. Though Japan has periodically switched mid-game to a 4-back, there is concern over whether the team will be able to hold back Iran for a full game in this system. With the new system, plus new sideback Miura, plus injury worries for def Yuji Nakazawa, the team will be going into the game pretty much cold turkey.

There are 7 Euro-based players on the current roster. Many expected the return of the "golden midfield" (Nakamura, NakataH, Ono, and Inamoto). Instead, Zico has paired Takashi Fukunishi (mf/Jubilo) with Shinji Ono (mf/Feyenoord) in defensive midfield, and left Junichi Inamoto out. I don't think this is a reflection of Inamoto's abilities; instead, it could be an indication of what "type" of player Zico is looking for -- namely, Fukunishi is strong in physical contact, and is a tall former-forward type point-getter (most of his goals are from headers). I also expect that Yanagisawa's call-up will not give him immediate starter position; instead, Naohiro Takahara (fw, Hamburg) will probably be paired with Masashi Oguro (fw, Gamba). For Oguro, this would be his first ever start in the NT.

The two game-makers will probably be Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata. The balance between Nakamura and Nakata (and their ability to pull out creative plays) will be a crucial factor of the game. Nakata of course has not played much football in the last year and has not been with the NT in a full year. He will have to make sure he communicates thoroughly with his right-side back Akira Kaji as well as Fukunishi (who has not played with Nakata). His sudden inclusion into the starting lineup have many analysts concerned as this is a big risk for Zico to take.

All in all, this will be a completely different team. And they don't have that much time to get it together before the Iran game. As I said before, we could do with fewer hurdles thrown up in front of us at the last minute. But maybe these are necessary challenges for the team to take it to the next level and become a unified, strengthened entity. Our spirit is with you, ZicoJapan.

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