Japan coach Takeshi Okada and his Blue Samurai have reasons to dread Uzbekistan when they face the unfancied Central Asian side in a decisive 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier here on Saturday.
If they win, the former Asian champions become the first country to qualify for the South Africa 2010, booking a fourth straight ticket to the big stage since their debut in 1998. But Okada warned: "The opponents have solid individual players so it won't be an easy game.
"Our team don't have particular leaders but each player has his place. I think they have become a stable team," he told Japanese media here of a side that has beaten Chile and Belgium 4-0 over the past week.
Australia, unbeaten and leading Japan by two points in Asian Group A, may also qualify with a win or draw against Qatar in Doha. Uzbekistan, fourth in the group with four points, must win their last two matches against Japan and Bahrain to keep alive their hopes of clinching the third-place play-off spot.
But Okada, in his second stint as Japan's national coach, has to break a jinx against Uzbekistan who are famous for their airtight defence and lightening counter-attacks. Japan have battled to 1-1 draws twice against Uzbekistan under Okada, both in FIFA World Cup qualifiers, although, under different coaches, they have won their four other past encounters with them.
At home last October, Keiji Tamada scored a crucial equaliser after Maksim Shatskikh struck first. "I don't remember well about past games," Okada shrugged.
Yasuhito Endo, who commands Japan's midfield with Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, also has some personal feelings toward Uzbek midfielder Server Djeparov. Djeparov was chosen as the AFC Player of the Year last year against Endo, who powered J-League Gamba Osaka to the AFC Champions League title with three goals and eight assists.
"Djeparov is dangerous when he is free. His left foot has to be watched. We must put him under tremendous pressure and prevent him from running free as much as possible," said the 29-year-old Endo.
Nakamura, the left-footed deadball specialist, chimed in: "We have to deal hard with the number-eight (Djeparov) in the middle of their 4-2-3-1 system." Nakamura, 30, seems likely to return to his old J-League home Yokohama Marinos this month, admitted he had some problem with his injured groin. "I'd be lying if I said, 'I have no pain,'" he said. "But it doesn't bother me during the game. I will just give it all."
Uzbekistan, managed by Mirdjalol Kasymov, got a boost from a goalless draw against under-strength Bosnia and Herzegovina in a home friendly on Monday when Djeparov missed a sitter and Farkhod Tadjiyev's header hit the woodwork. "We are in a tough position but we we're not going to surrender," Kasymov said.
"We are set to fight it out until we have a slightest chance to advance." He has called up all his best players except full-back Vitaly Denisov, who is sidelined with a leg injury, and Dynamo Kiev striker Maxim Shatskikh, who is lacking match practice.