Japan make steady rise
© AFP

A two-place climb to 44th on the latest FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking may be nothing big to brag about for Japan, who peaked at a lofty 9 th, which remains the highest ever position an Asian team have achieved, back in February 1998. However, their recent hike represents the steady progress the Eastern Asians have made.

Japan's sustained progress was further underlined in the recent Kirin Cup, where they raised the trophy aloft as hosts courtesy of a win over Montenegro and a draw against Colombia.

Positive preparations
With only four weeks to go before the start of the AFC Asian Cup, the three-nation Kirin Cup provided the reigning continental champions with a precious chance to sharpen their form ahead of the defence of their crown. They made a winning start on 1 June with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Montenegro, who were playing only their second match since independence. Veteran defender Yuji Nakazawa headed the hosts into lead after 23 minutes, before Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara sealed the success for Japan a quarter of an hour later.

Japan then played out a goalless draw with Colombia on Tuesday, a result which proved sufficient for them to claim the trophy by virtue of their superior goal difference over the South Americans.

The reverse of Montenegro was Bosnian coach Ivica Osim's seventh success in ten games at the Japanese controls. Appointed in the wake of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ co-hosts' disappointing Germany 2006 campaign, the 66-year-old believes the Kirin Cup proved a positive confidence-building exercise ahead of the Asian Cup, while also providing him with a chance to identify his charges' weaknesses.

"The players played well in the beginning but some of them started to play individually," he pointed out after the Montenegro match. "Our football is to move the ball quickly, but it was destroyed by playing individually." Then, after the draw against Colombia, he lauded his side's progress. "Although we couldn't score, I think we played a nice game. Had we taken one of the numeral chances we produced in the second half, we would have won the game," concluded Osim.

European-based trio
Osim is under no illusion about the difficulties Japan will face when they trade blows with Asia's elite in July, but he will have been left encouraged by the nation's all-conquering performance in the previous edition in 2004, when an under-strength team successfully defended their title. This aside, Osim's charges can also draw inspiration from their European-based stars, who have been starring for their respective employers on the old continent.

Among the three overseas-based players Osim recalled for the Kirin Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura is poised to assume the playmaker's role for his country in the Asian Cup, having recently helped Celtic complete a Scottish league and cup double. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Naohiro Takahara, who scored 11 goals in 30 matches for Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2006/07 season, proved his worth to his country by netting in Japan's recent victories over Peru in March and Montenegro.

Looking ahead to the Asian Cup, Takahara vowed to do his best to help Japan clinch their third consecutive - and fourth overall - continental prize. "With Australia also participating in the tournament, it's going to be harder to defend the title. However, despite the challenges the most important is we each do our job well. Whoever I play with up front, I know what I have to do," he said.