The rise of the Blue Samurai in Asia
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- One of the more unique aspects of the road to Rio is examining a national team as it travels a qualifying route.
There is the case of perennial power and host Brazil, which finds itself in an unfamiliar position of finding new scorers while playing only friendlies. On the other end are squads like Bahrain, which came tantalizingly close to passage to South Africa before losing a two-legged playoff to New Zealand for the last spot in the field of 32.
In the middle, countries cycle up or down due to a host of factors - turning over a roster of players beyond their prime, a new manager implementing his preferred formation and philosophy, or how players develop at domestic clubs that help or hinder the advancement potential of a national team.
While most of the teams that will qualify for the 2014 World Cup from Asia come from that middle group, Japan has emerged as the team to watch most closely.
The Samurai Blue have progressed to the knockout round twice in their run of four successive World Cup appearances, though they were overshadowed as co-hosts in 2002 by South Korea's run to the semifinals. Japan was eliminated in penalty kicks by Paraguay in 2010 in the round of 16, but coach Takeshi Okada resigned after failing to meet his stated goal of reaching the semifinals there.
In his place arrived Alberto Zaccheroni, whose coaching star shone early in guiding AC Milan to a Serie A title in 1999. Yet Zaccheroni never equaled that success at various stops around Italy, which in turn never put him in the pool of candidates to lead the Azzurri.
After his hiring, Zaccheroni used three friendlies at the end of 2010 to evaluate the national player pool and brought in 13 new faces - veteran midfielder Yasuhito Endo was the only player older than 29 - for the Asian Cup in January. Employing a 4-2-3-1 formation that emphasizes Japan's strength of a cohesive backline coupled with a more flowing push forward, the Samurai Blue navigated a difficult knockout-round gauntlet with victories over host Qatar in the quarters, archrival South Korea in penalty kicks in the semifinals and fellow 2010 World Cup participant Australia in extra time in the championship.
Japan also cemented its status as the region favorite with a 3-0 thumping of South Korea on Wednesday. Emerging star Shinji Kagawa, who broke his foot during the Asian Cup, scored a pair of goals in his return, while midfielders Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda had the run of the park.
The Samurai Blue have seen more of their players earn roster spots on European teams - Kagawa, Hasebe, defender Atusto Uchida and midfielder Hajime Hosogai all play in the Bundesliga in Germany, and Yuto Nagatomo - arguably the team's best defender - became the first Japanese player to join Inter Milan after being loaned out by Cesena.
Japan has been given a difficult first-round qualifying group that features 2010 World Cup squad North Korea, an Uzbekistan squad on the upswing after reaching the semis of the Asian Cup, and Syria, which likely will be the bottom-feeder. The Samurai Blue, though, appear more than ready for the challenge that awaits.
As does Australia, which has quickly adapted to the AFC. Coach Holger Osieck's squad has picked up some momentum as it prepares to land a third straight World Cup berth. The Socceroos have gone undefeated in four friendlies since the Asian Cup, highlighted by a 2-1 victory at Germany in March and a 2-1 win at Wales on Wednesday.
Osieck has a quintet of veterans - goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, defenders Lucas Neill and Luke Willshire, and midfielders Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton to marshal the young charges led by Robbie Kruse in what should be an easy first-round group.
South Korea is trying to qualify for its seventh straight World Cup, but its manhandling by Japan has raised red flags for the Red Devils despite their third-place finish in Qatar. The biggest concern is replacing the biggest cog of its engine, departed midfielder Park Ji-Sung.
Park, the linchpin of South Korea's squads past, retired from international play after his 100th cap to concentrate on the final stages of his club career at Manchester United. The Red Devils, though, are similar to Japan with players toiling in European-based leagues and a pipeline of youth that coach Cho Kwang-Rae can utilize.
Uzbekistan and Qatar appear to have the inside track for the region's fourth and final direct qualifying spot to Brazil. Striker Aleksandr Geynrikh and midfielder Server Djpearov power the White Wolves, while the 2022 hosts - for now, at least - are seeking their first World Cup appearance as Brazilian Sebastiao Lazaroni takes the helm for the Annabi.
Saudi Arabia, which saw its run of World Cup appearances end at four after failing to reach South Africa, has hired Dutchman Frank Rijkaard to turn around its sagging fortunes. The Green Falcons should finish second to Australia in its early round group, but will need stellar play from Yasser Al-Qahtani to have any chance of progressing out of the final round.
North Korea took a step back with its group play exit from the Asian Cup, and a top-two finish in its difficult group may be asking too much of standout strikers Jong Tae-Se and Hong Yong-Jo. China and Iraq should both progress to the final round, but neither appear ready to pose a threat to the established pecking order at the moment.
Updated August 12, 2011