Takeshi Okada resembles a man stuck in quicksand without a rope.
On the surface there appears little reason for panic after Japan came from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan in front of 55,142 fans at Saitama Stadium on October 15. Yet the manner of the draw and Okada’s increasingly dejected demeanour suggest that the Japan coach is working on borrowed time.
The draw comes in the wake of Japan’s dreadful showing in a friendly against the United Arab Emirates in Niigata six days earlier. Just when Okada needed his team to turn in a display of ruthless efficiency to silence his growing Pkv Poker army of critics, it was more of the same from the Blue Samurai, who went behind following a mistake in defence from Marcus Tulio Tanaka and who spurned numerous chances to register a winner after drawing level through Keiji Tamada.
Tulio and veteran Yuji Nakazawa are both self-styled leaders at the heart of the Japan defence, but the experienced central defenders were brutally exposed by a bustling Uzbekistan strike force. On the half hour mark an innocuous chip forward should have been comfortably dealt with by Tulio, but rather than take the safety-first option of playing the ball into touch, the Brazilian-born Tulio attempted an acrobatic scissor-kick clearance that was headed on to Timur Kapadze, and his cross was turned in by Uzbek talisman Maxim Shatskikh.
The goal was symptomatic of Japan’s current plight – routine football blighted by individual mistakes, and it was no surprise to see Tulio desperate to atone for his error.
It was the much-maligned Yoshito Okubo who almost drew Japan level as he failed to get on the end of a Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick by a matter of inches, and those two players then combined to set up Japan’s equaliser, as Nakamura’s floated ball forward was hooked back by Okubo to an unmarked Tamada to bundle home.
Before the match both Okubo and Tamada had received extra shooting practice in a bid to remedy Japan’s chronic lack of confidence in front of goal, but whatever good Tamada’s goal may have done for his flagging self-belief, it will have evaporated by the time referee Albadwawi Ali Hamad blew the full-time whistle as Tamada wasted a series of second half chances.
First he hooked a difficult chance wide following a cross from the marauding Atsuto Uchida, before the Nagoya Grampus front man saw a curling left-foot strike pushed away by Uzbek keeper Ignatiy Nesterov. With twenty minutes remaining Tamada somehow conjured to volley over when it seemed easier to score, but an offside flag saved the shaky striker his blushes.
Japan’s best chance came in the final minute when Tulio saw his goal-bound effort acrobatically turned away by Nesterov, as Uzbekistan held on for a gritty draw. The result was hardly a categorical disaster for Japan, yet the disappointment etched into Japanese faces says much about the current psychological state of the team.
Coach Okada is, for many, the man to blame. The Blue Samurai have made little progress since Okada stepped in as coach for the stricken Ivica Osim, despite the fact that in his second spell as Japan coach, Okada has now overseen seventeen competitive fixtures since taking over from the Bosnian.
Okada’s critics point out that far from motivating his team, the po-faced tactician has instead heaped pressure on them. Before the World Cup qualifiers kicked off, Okada claimed that it was his mission to top South Korea’s fourth place showing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Yet when Japan laboured through the opening round of World Cup qualifiers, Okada was quick to bemoan the lack of self-belief rippling through his ranks.
Japan’s saving grace will surely be the fact that they been drawn in the easier of the two Asian final qualifying groups. While Australia top Group A with a maximum six points from six, Japan are just two points behind them having won their opening qualifier away in Bahrain.
With the top two teams going through as automatic qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Australia and Japan remain favourites to book their places in South Africa in two years time, leaving Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Qatar to battle it out for a playoff place against the third-place finisher from Group B.
Few would be surprised if Takeshi Okada is not at the helm in 2010, however, with Japan struggling to cut down mistakes on the pitch and desperate for an injection of confidence off it.