The Socceroos are ready to play 'sexy' according to Brett Emerton at the Asia Cup. Emerton might be talking of a wet t-shirt contest as a typhoon threatens the opening of the cup with torrential rain and winds. This is also the height of a hot and sticky summer in SE Asia that will make those jerseys cling to skin like cheap plastic. But I think Emerton is being more prosaic and means a more attractive brand of soccer. Considering their good form in the World Cup, the Socceroos are odds on favourites to win their inaugural Asian Cup. But there is competition in Japan, the reigning Asian Cup champion.
The two countries met in the World Cup group stages and the Socceroos came out on top, 3-1 despite Japan going ahead on a controversial goal scored by Shunsuke Nakamura. Tim Cahill shot the Socceroos ahead with his brace and John Aloisi iced it with his extra time goal. Japan only managed a point and manager Zico resigned after the World Cup. The Socceroos under Guus Hiddink came under the spotlight as one of the few surprises of the World Cup as well as in playing some of the most controversial matches. Graham Poll and Fabio Grosso became household names.
Graham Arnold and Ivica Osim are the two managers entrusted with the future course of the Socceroos and the Daihyo, respectively. Japan will again be looking to the leading exponent of dead ball art in the world, Shunsuke Nakamura whose wicked free kick benders evoke Beckham except its with his his left foot. Nakamura was behind Japan's cup winning exploits in 2000 and 2004 and is also adept at scoring from the open field. Celtic wiith Nakamura in scintillating form claimed their 41st Scottish title. There are reports that Nakamura is preparing for this Asian Cup by lining burly rugby players in a wall and scoring free kicks over and around them.
Under Ivica Osim, Japan is grooming for the future with a number of youth players in the Japan squad. He is taking them in a different direction from Zico. A number of the 2002 and 2006 starters with big names like Red Bulls Salzburg's Alessandro Dos Santos, Messina's Atsushi Yanagisawa, FC Basel's Koji Nakata, and Eintracht's Junichi Inamoto have not gotten the call and Bolton's Hidetoshi Nakata has retired from international soccer. Osim also seems to be emphasizing homegrown talent as there are only two overseas players in the entire squad.
Nakamura will be supported by his midfield namesake Kawasaki Frontale's less well known Kengo Nakamura. The bulk of the strike will come from Eintracht's Naohiro Takahara, Japan's leading scorer with 19 goals. But Japan will be also looking to Sanfrecce Hiroshima's Hisato Sato, an undisputed star in a midlevel club. With 36 goals in two seasons, Sato is the top ranked Japanese striker dominated by a list of Brazilians that include Ueslei, Juninho, Edmilson, and Washington.
An interesting sidenote is that Graham Arnold played for Sanfrecce Hiroshima in its 1997 season. Other Oz players that played in the J-League include Steve Corica, Matthew Bingley, and Hayden Foxe. However, the present squad reflects the success of the A-League and the attraction for the European leagues. Out of the 23 first squaddies, a whopping twenty play in the European league, eight in the English leagues. Arnold has gone in for experience with all the World Cup starters back. The average age is 27 years with Sydney FC's Mark Milligan at 24 the youngest. However, the Socceroos are not resting on their World Cup laurels and Graham Arnold expects nothing less than a finals appearance from the squad.
A concern for the Socceroos is the heat and humidity that could potentially take its toll on the older players as the tournament wears on as well as recent injury concerns to Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell. Arnold might have to substitute them early with the younger and fresher Nicky Carle, Vince Grella, and Luke Wilshire. Socceroo fans could get a very good look at their talent in this Asian Cup.
Australia take on Oman in their first match and Japan meets Qatar. For more coverage of the Asian Cup >>