Unofficial Football World Champs Argentina are heading to Japan to defend their title, comprehensively swiped from Spain a month ago. Among their number will be Lionel Messi, having made a rapid recovery from an ankle injury.
Barcelona will be hoping their prized asset isn’t being rushed back into action too soon. The Japan Football Association placed pressure on Argentina to select Messi, with president Junji Ogura stating that Argentina would only receive their $200,000 fixture bonus if he played. He made a brief comeback appearance as a sub for Barcelona in last week’s Champions League match against Rubin Kazan.
The two sides last met in a (non-UFWC) friendly in Japan in 2004, with Argentina running out 2-1 winners. They have met before in the UFWC, at the 1998 World Cup Finals. Argentina won that one, too, 1-0 courtesy of one of the UFWC’s all-time top goalscorers Gabriel Batistuta.
This one will be played in Saitama City, not far from Tokyo. Built for then 2002 World Cup Finals, Saitama Stadium is currently home to J League clubs Urawa Red Diamonds and Omiya Ardija.
Japan have an awful record in the UFWC. They’ve played five title matches, and lost all of them. So they don’t even make it onto the UFWC rankings table.
Argentina, on the other hand, are ranked 3rd in the all-time table, having won a massive 51 title matches. FIFA rank Argentina 5th in the world, with Japan 25 places below at 30th. So Argentina are bound to be favourites, but the home side are in good form and could easily provide an upset.
Japan beat Cameroon and Denmark at the World Cup, but lost out to Paraguay on penalties. They’ve since gained some sort of revenge by beating Paraguay in a friendly, and then beating Guatemala.
Both sides have appointed new coaches since the World Cup. Japan’s is the experienced Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, who won the Scudetto with Milan in 1999. He’s stated that he plans to instil some European flair into the team, and has added nine European-based players to his squad, including strikers Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow and Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund, plus Leicester City midfielder Yuki Abe.
Argentina’s caretaker coach Sergio Batista, staking a firm claim to be appointed on a permanent basis, has also made changes to his squad since the World Cup, and further changes have been forced upon him for this game. Striker Sergio Aguero, who scored in the UFWC win over Spain, is out with a ‘strained buttock’. Inter Milan captain Javier Zanetti is also out, with a non-buttock-related injury. Fernando Gago and Pablo Zabaleta are also out, with Batista drafting in Cristian Ansaldi and Nicolas Pareja as replacements.
Can Japan defeat Argentina and win the UFWC title for the very first time? If so, they will go on to defend their title against South Korea next Tuesday. If Argentina retain the title, there’ll be a slightly longer gap before the next title match, but it will be worth waiting for – the first in a pair of mouthwatering Roca Cup friendlies between Argentina and Brazil on 17 November.
Who will win? Make your predictions and post your comments below. And join us right here for coverage of the match on Friday. It kicks off at 1150 AM UK time.