The ability to convert goalscoring opportunities is often the difference between success and failure at international level. A lack of potency in the penalty area is a matter that Japan coach Takeshi Okada says must be put right if the Blue Samurai are to have any chance of achieving their stated aim of a semi-final berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Japan's debut appearance at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France yielded just one goal with that inability to score leading to three straight losses. Eleven years on and the goal-scoring problem still lingers. In their eight matches in the final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010 Japan scored 11 goals in a group which also featured Australia, Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan.
In their friendly against the Netherlands earlier this month the East Asian attack was again kept silent with the Dutch ultimately cruising to a 3-0 victory despite an even first half. "It's been a problem that has been talked about for a long time but when we got into the box we lacked a killer touch and we paid the price for our naivety," Okada lamented after the match, stressing that the team must improve their cutting edge in attack if they are to compete against the world's best.
For Okada, the gap that exists between Japan and the very top echelon is partly in mental terms. Even against the Netherlands the Blue Samurai played well in the opening half, with Kengo Nakamura and Shinji Okazaki both getting close to opening scoring.
But their confidence began to wane as the rivals upped the tempo after the interval and after Robin van Persie put the hosts ahead on 69 minutes, the Japanese world caved in, allowing Wesley Sneijder to double the advantage four minutes later before Klaas Jan Huntelaar put the icing on the cake with three minutes remaining.
The result left Okada ruing his charges' lack of mental endurance. "We must last for 90 minutes and unless we manage to maintain our strength throughout, there is no hope for our goal to reach the last four in the World Cup."
The Netherlands undoubtedly proved to be a learning experience as Japan emerged a different team a few days later against Ghana, fighting from two goals down to run out 4-3 winners. The result provided Okada with a timely boost to their confidence as they continue to build for their top-four mission. "The important thing was again to score goals, something we couldn't do against Holland but we did this time," said the 53-year-old. "With two goals down the players didn't panic but rallied back to win."
Striking optionsAlthough a proven goal-scorer is still missing from Japan's ranks, the quantity of attacking options is numerous, with a host of scoring talent coming up through the ranks. After grabbing the only goal against Uzbekistan that sealed Japan's qualification, 23-year-old Okazaki went on to score his eighth international goal against Ghana to cement his starting place in the attacking line.
In finding Okazaki a partner in the front, Okada first tested VVV-Venlo marksman Keisuke Honda, who scored 21 times to steer his side back to the Dutch first division last season, bringing him on for veteran Keiji Takada against the Netherlands. He would also give a surprise start to Jubilo Iwata striking sensation Ryoichi Maeda against Ghana.
Italian-based striker Takayuki Morimoto, who has scored regularly for Serie A side Catania, is likely to provide a further option despite missing his international debut through injury. With a plethora of striking prodigies at his disposal, it is no surprise that Okada is confident of improving the team's cutting edge. "Our team still has room to improve and we have time. I believe we will be ready for the World Cup," he concluded.