Tajikistan vs Japan
Dushanbe, 11/11/11 (1400 local, 0900 GMT)
Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan side have been training in Doha, Qatar in preparation for this UFWC title match against Tajikistan. Doha, of course, was the venue for the Blue Samurai’s Asian Cup triumph in January, and the team is still riding on a wave of glory some ten months later, still unbeaten, still UFWC champions, and on course to reach the next qualifying stage of the World Cup.
If Japan beat Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan beat North Korea, the Blue Samurai will reach the final qualifying stage with two games still to play. That would be an impressive achievement, but wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen Japan play over the last year or so, and certainly not those who watched the devastating 8-0 thrashing of Tajikistan in the last UFWC title match / World Cup qualifier on Osaka last month.
That eight-goal rout was the biggest UFWC title match win for more than 20 years. Mike Havenaar, Shinji Okazaki, and Shinji Kagawa scored two goals each, and Yuichi Komano and Kengo Nakamura also netted in the huge win that saw Japan extend their reign as UFWC champions to 15 games. The Blue Samurai have held the title since beating Argentina on 8 October 2010.
Japan are now ranked 19th in the all-time UFWC ranking table. A win over Tajikistan would move them up to 17th place, alongside Chile and Greece. And few would bet against Zaccheroni’s dynamic team outclassing poor Tajikistan once again.
Still without Keisuke Honda, Japan will hope that influential midfielder Yasuhito Endo can overcome a groin strain. Left-back Yuto Nagatomo will miss out, and Michihiro Yasuda has been drafted in to replace him. Nakamura and Havenaar, who both impressive in the last game, should keep their places. Kagawa, in resurgent form at Borussia Dortmund, will be looking to continue to impress, the 22-year-old having been linked with a host of other top clubs in recent weeks.
As for Tajikistan, they have the benefit of home advantage, and must surely expect to fare better than they did in the last game. To be honest, they could scarcely do worse. The Tajiks had very little possession and no shots on goal in Osaka. Alimzhon Rafikov’s side will surely want to offer at least some opposition to Japan, and the coach will hope that players like Kamil Saidov and Ilkhomjon Ortikov can play with a little more purpose in this return match.
If Tajikistan could hold Japan to a draw it would be extraordinary. If they could defeat Japan, and take the UFWC title, it would be unbelievable. A Tajikistan win would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the UFWC. Tajikistan as Unofficial Football World Champions? It couldn’t happen, could it..?
Assuming it doesn’t happen, and Japan overcome Tajikistan, the next test for the Blue Samurai will be a trip to North Korea on Tuesday. The last time the sides met, in Saitama in September, Japan won by a single last-gasp goal. Things will be tougher away from home, and North Korea will provide a different class of opposition than Tajikistan.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Japan need to beat Tajikistan first, and surely that can not be as easy as it was last time. There is certainly no place for complacency. A win or a draw will retain the UFWC title for the Blue Samurai. Kick-off is 2pm local time, which is 9am in London, and 6pm in Tokyo. We’ll have a full match report here within minutes of the final whistle, and you can get live coverage via our Twitter feed @UFWC_Football.