Japan chasing unlikely World Cup dream

 TOKYO, May 20, 2010 (AFP) - Japan face a tough World Cup task -- apart from coach Takeshi Okada's arguably impossible dream of a semi-final spot -- to win a match on foreign soil for the first time.

It will be the second World Cup appearance for Okada, who guided Japan to a winless debut at France 1998, and the fourth for the Blue Samurai who are staking their claim as three-time former Asian champions.

"I have not changed my goal at all," the scholarly 53-year-old Okada said of the last-four target when he named his World Cup squad featuring four Europe-based players and recent J-League returnee, former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura.

"But we must advance from the group round first of all and our opening match against Cameroon will be the most important one," he said.

"We have never won a (World Cup) match away. And, if we don't earn a point in the opener, it will put us down mentally."

In South Africa, snatching just one point will be tough in a group including the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark -- all higher ranked than Japan who have an organised midfield despite their lack of physical strength and firepower.

Japan dazzled at the 2002 World Cup which they co-hosted with neighbours South Korea. Coached by French disciplinarian Philippe Troussier, they beat Russia and Tunisia and drew with Belgium before losing to Turkey in the last-16.

At Germany 2006, they bowed out at the group stage, losing to five-time champions Brazil and Australia and drawing with Croatia.

Their coach at the time was Brazilian legend Zico, who vainly encouraged the Samurai to express themselves on the pitch.

Okada, who piloted Yokohama Marinos to the J-League title in 2003 and 2004, replaced Ivica Osim as national coach in late 2007 when the Bosnian suffered a stroke to cut short his plan to turn Japan into hard-running surprise packages.

He has since insisited Japan can reach the World Cup semi-finals, as South Korea did in 2002.

A former defender, Okada came under fire for his lack of offensive tactics when Japan's home-based players finished third at the East Asian championships in February and lost 3-0 to a second-string Serbia in a home friendly in April.

But Japan Football Association president Motoaki Inukai has kept faith with Okada, who will want to avoid going down in World Cup history as the first coach to suffer more than three straight losses.

Okada will count on CSKA Moscow rookie Keisuke Honda for getting goals along with Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe, Grenoble midfielder Daisuke Matsui and Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto.

His squad also stars dead-ball specialist Nakamura, who rejoined his old J-League home club Yokohama in February after struggling for six months at Espanyol following his much-touted transfer from Celtic.

Honda, 23, who moved to Moscow from Dutch side VVV Venlo in January, has emerged from Nakamura's shadow with his free-kick wizardry which helped CSKA reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals for the first time.

"Japan keep on challenging like swarming flies and work a lot," Okada said of his squad's strengths. "We are also fast in switching between offensive and defensive and well organised."

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