Soccer-World-Zaccheroni's flair faces acid test with Japan


By Patrick Johnston

June 5 (Reuters) - Alberto Zaccheroni has done his best over four years in charge of Japan to dismiss the stereotype of Italian football men being focused on defence.

The Italian coach has transformed the Blue Samurai into a high-tempo attacking unit full of flair and capable of cutting open and scoring against the toughest of oppositions.

That exciting play is thanks to the exploits of playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda and is ably supported by forward thinking full backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida.

However, it comes at the cost of clean sheets.

Four goals were conceded against Uruguay and Italy last year, three against Brazil and China, and they also suffered upsets against Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria and Jordan.

That has taken some of the shine off Zaccheroni's early achievements in his first foray into international management, which was greeted by some scepticism in Japan.

While fans had hoped that Marcelo Bielsa or Manuel Pellegrini would succeed Takeshi Okada, who had stepped down after a last-16 exit at the 2010 World Cup, they offered guarded optimism at the unveiling of Zaccheroni.

The Italian had ended a three-year spell out of the game by taking charge of Juventus for an unsuccessful four-month period which ended in May 2010.

He had made his name at Udinese with some innovative tactics before joining AC Milan and leading them to the Serie A title in 1999 with a 3-4-3 formation that he has experimented with in Japan.

The Italian reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation when he led Japan to the Asian Cup title in January 2011 but has attempted modifications amid its failings against tougher opposition arranged at his request by the JFA.

Grumbles have come from the stands at his persistence with perceived favourites, with Yasuyuki Konno continuing in central defence despite the problems of the back line and his club side Gamba Osaka being relegated to the second division.

But his inclusion of in-form 31-year-old striker Yoshito Okubo after a two exile has seen more positive feedback.

With the recent struggles of South Korea and Australia prior to the firing and hiring of coaches, tests have been few and far between in Asia with Zaccheroni able to brush off a shock loss in Jordan to easily qualify.

As with most of the 32 coaches in Brazil, though, the acid test will be results at the finals, with Japan eyeing a first World Cup quarter-final in their fifth consecutive appearance.

Japan have been given a favourable draw in Group C alongside Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast, with Zaccheroni talking confidently of progression.

His contract status is a mystery and he has been linked with numerous jobs in Italy, which he has continued to downplay.

A first last-eight appearance could help return his reputation to its previous heady heights in Italy and leave the Blue Samurai looking for his replacement for their Asian Cup defence in Australia in January (Editing by Mike Collett)

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