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Soccer: Striker selection still a headache as World Cup looms+
[April 05, 2006]

Soccer: Striker selection still a headache as World Cup looms+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)TOKYO, April 5_(Kyodo) _ Japan boss Zico, like many other international coaches, likes to call the predicament of having to select his World Cup squad something like a "pleasant problem."

However, choosing his final group for Germany could prove a more troublesome task than anticipated, at least on the attacking front.

Realistically, Zico is already sure about at least three quarters of the 23-man squad he will name on May 15, but which forwards to pick still remains a headache.

At the start of the year, Zico stressed the need for Japan to demonstrate more of a killer instinct in front of goal and made instilling a ruthless streak into his strike force his chief priority in the build-up to the finals.

But despite the return of injury-prone Zico favorite Tatsuhiko Kubo and Keiji Tamada, Japan have failed to impress in front of goal in meaningless friendlies against the likes of the United States, Bosnia, Finland and Ecuador.

Most of Japan's European-based forwards are struggling at their respective clubs and Zico was given further cause for concern when Atsushi Yanagisawa, who returned to Kashima Antlers on loan from Messina until June in order to boost his World Cup hopes, last month suffered an injury that has cast a dark cloud over his prospects of making the finals.

Zico is known for being fiercely loyal to the players who have performed for him in the past and in all likelihood, Kubo, back after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a variety of injuries, and German-based striker Naohiro Takahara, who rarely plays well for Japan, are as good as on the plane.

Zico's recent comments suggest that Yanagisawa is also a sure-fire bet should he beat the race against the clock.

"Yanagisawa is a very important player for Japan. He did brilliantly at (last year's) Confederations Cup and the World Cup qualifiers. It's unfortunate that he got injured and I really want him back as quickly as possible," said Zico.

"Supersub" Masashi Oguro is another probable on the strength of his crucial goals in the World Cup qualifying campaign, although apart from a recent hat-trick he has done little to strengthen his case since an ill-timed move to French second-division club Grenoble from Gamba Osaka.

Real Mallorca's Yoshito Okubo and Takayuki Suzuki, who is currently plying his trade at Red Star Belgrade, also have outside chances of inclusion.

There is not much room for maneuver and Zico must now ponder whether newcomer Hisato Sato and Seiichiro Maki can give Japan something extra in Germany.

Sato said he wanted to emulate Oguro when he was handed his first international call-up at the end of last year and he did an excellent impression when he came off the bench to hit the winner in Japan's 1-0 defeat over Ecuador last week.

Zico was quick to sing the praises of Sato and Maki, who relieved misfiring Kubo and Tamada of their duties against the South Americans in Oita.

"They both came on and got the job done and I firmly believe that the other players on the bench would have delivered results too. Having so many players like that makes it difficult for me to choose my final 23. But as coach I'm glad to have such a pleasant problem," said Zico.

Time is running out for Sato and Maki, who have just two more matches in next month's Kirin Cup against Scotland and Bulgaria to force their case, but Zico's comments on Tuesday indicated that the door is still open.

"Last time (for the Ecuador match) I called up five strikers. It was unfortunate that Yanagisawa got injured and had to drop out. I think the other four were excellent."

"There is a possibility that I will pick five strikers but it is still too early to say at this point. There are still matches to be played and it needs some consideration."

Sato, the top Japanese scorer in the J-League last season, is well aware that his World Cup chances are slim at best but was pleased with the timing of his late goal against Ecuador, his second in four appearances for Japan.

"The more I am involved with the national team the more I realize that I am at the bottom of the pecking order and I know how hard I have to work at my club to stand a chance of surviving the cut for the World Cup," Sato said.

"But getting a goal, the winning goal, in the last game before a month without any national team games was nice, and hopefully it will stick in Zico's mind."

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