Japan take on Côte d'Ivoire and Paraguay in the annual Kirin Cup this week hoping to set up a platform for their decisive 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers next month. The Asian heavyweights will play the Ivorians on 24 May in Toyota and Paraguay on three days later in Saitama, while the visitors face each other in Thursday's opener in Yokohama.

Japan coach Takeshi Okada, who took charge of the side in November, sees the games as a useful work-out ahead of the qualifiers against Oman, Thailand and Bahrain. "Among the African countries, Ivory Coast have the most players who play in Europe - England, France and Germany," he said.

"Their technique and physical ability are really good. It will be a good opportunity for us to play a team like that because we can try to execute our game plan. These are test matches for the World Cup qualifiers.

Okada said Paraguay play consistent, defensively solid football with swift counter-attacks. "Probably their style of play is what Japan must aim at," he added.

Nakamura and Matsui selected
Côte d'Ivoire are shorn of some of their top names, notably Chelsea forwards Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, who are instead focusing their attention on Wednesday's UEFA Champions League final in Moscow against Manchester United. Lens forward Aruna Dindane injured his left knee ligament and is sidelined for six months, and Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure is ruled out due to a hernia operation. Still, most of their players are based in Europe.

Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino, for his part, has brought players mainly from their domestic league, and they are without experienced players such as Blackburn Rovers front-runner Roque Santa Cruz and Benfica's Oscar Cardozo. Martino said he wanted to use the Kirin Cup as a chance to watch as many players as possible.

Okada, meanwhile, called up Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura and Daisuke Matsui, who has signed a three-year deal with St Etienne, for the first time under his tenure following the shock 1-0 loss in Bahrain in South Africa 2010 qualifying in March. This result left Bahrain on top of Group 2
on six points, ahead of Japan and Oman, who have three apiece, and pointless Thailand.

Japan host Oman on 2 June, travel to Muscat for the return fixture five days later, then meet Thailand on 14 June before flying home to play Bahrain on 22 June. In the first game against Bahrain, Okada used a three-man defensive system and demanded long balls behind the Gulf side's backline, but his tactics did not work and left his squad puzzled.

Basel's Koji Nakata and Junichi Inamoto of Eintracht Frankfurt have been sidelined due to injuries.

"It's important to play for the national team because days are limited when you are based in Europe," said Nakamura. "We've already lost one game in the qualifier, so we must work hard together to get past the round."