Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has said that his squad can match Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire and Greece in their FIFA World Cup™ group.
"I am confident we can go head-to-head with any of them if we perform to the best of our abilities," the Italian said as he announced his squad for a friendly against New Zealand in Tokyo next Wednesday. "About gaps with other teams in the group, I feel there are not so big gaps. I'd rather say there are none."
Zaccheroni called up the usual suspects for the 23-man squad including Keisuke Honda, who has yet to show a spark in AC Milan's midfield after moving from CSKA Moscow in January, and Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa, who has mostly warmed the bench under David Moyes. Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo is expected to play left back for Japan as usual.
But Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida and Nuremberg midfielder Makoto Hasebe were dropped due to injuries. The Blue Samurai, four-time Asian champions, will play Cyprus at home on 27 May in their only other warm-up match before the World Cup months of June and July.
I am confident we can go head-to-head with any of them if we perform to the best of our abilities.
Zaccheroni said New Zealand, who failed to qualify for Brazil but impressed at South Africa 2010 with three draws at the group stage, are "ideal opponents" at this point. "They are physically strong and it will be an important game in our preparations."
Japan's opponents in World Cup Group C are all ranked higher in the FIFA table. Colombia stand fifth against Greece (12), Côte d'Ivoire (23) and Japan (50). "It is not an easy group but it is well balanced," Zaccheroni said. "At the moment, Colombia seem somewhat ahead as they have wealth of talented players, many of them playing abroad. They are capable of mixing quality with accuracy and speed of play. I have the impression that they are a great team."
Côte d'Ivoire have the potential to become "the eye of the storm", said Zaccheroni, who took over the Blue Samurai after they reached the last 16 at South Africa 2010. He said the West African nation are accustomed to the hot weather they'll encounter in Brazil. "But they seem to have ups and downs at times."
"Greece are a difficult side to play," Zaccheroni said, explaining that the former European champions "play a kind of football which cancels out the strengths of opponents".
"They are highly accurate on the counterattack and they are united in defence," he said. Zaccheroni believes Japan, known for their well organised play that they frequently fail to convert into goals, may not feel there is such a gap with group opponents "if we play our own brand of football".
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege/BEL), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds) Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Defenders: Yuichi Komano (Jubilo Iwata) Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka) Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata) Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan/ITA) Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo) Maya Yoshida (Southampton/ENG) Hiroki Sakai (Hannover/GER) Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart/GER)
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka) Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) Hajime Hosogai (Hertha Berlin/GER) Keisuke Honda (AC Milan/ITA) Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United/ENG) Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremberg/GER) Manabu Saito (Yokohama Marinos) Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz/GER) Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka) Masato Kudo (Kashiwa Reysol) Yuya Osako (TSV 1860 Munich/GER)