Japan manager Takeshi Okada has backed midfield playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura to regain form and help the national team meet its goal of reaching the 2010 World Cup semifinals.
Japan has a difficult draw for the World Cup, facing tough first-round opponents in the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark, yet Okada has set the lofty goal of a position in the final four.
Nakamura, the most renowned of Japanese players after spells in Italy and with Celtic in Scotland, had struggled since switching to Spanish side Espanyol this season. He is yet to score in 10 appearances.
"He (Nakamura) made this decision before the World Cup to go to Spain and there was a certain amount of risk involved," Okada told reporters Thursday.
"However, when I consider his decision I actually admire him deeply for it. He will not take the easy option; he will always try to find the more challenging choice."
Okada, whose team first faces Cameroon in the tournament on June 14, said his team will depend upon its teamwork rather than outstanding individuals to make an impact in South Africa.
"If we start out telling ourselves we can't reach the level of Ronaldhino and Messi, we've already lost."
Okada, who also coached Japan in the 1998 tournament, dismissed the suggestion that Japan cannot match the physical prowess of top African teams. He pointed out that Japan hasn't yet lost to an African team during his current tenure. In recent friendlies, Japan beat Ghana 4-3 and overpowered Togo 5-0 — matches both played on home soil.
No wins abroad
But Japan has yet to win a World Cup match abroad. The team made it to the second round of the 2002 World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea, but failed to win a game in their other appearances in 1998 and 2006.
With the Netherlands favoured to progress from the group, Japan will need results against either Cameroon or Denmark to progress to the knockout stages.
Okada said the Danish attack is likely to be spearheaded by "strong, aggressive" Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner.
"They have a tough, blocking defence, and my impression is that they send in cross passes to Bendtner near the goalmouth," he said.
Okada also said that he hadn't ruled out recalling midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara, recently named J-League Player of the Year after leading the Kashima Antlers to a third straight league title. Ogasawara has been left out of the national team in recent years.
"From the point of view of his skills, we think he's outstanding," Okada said.
But he stressed that when picking a team he needed to think about its overall balance, not just individual skills.
"It may be that we need someone of Ogasawara's skills," he said. "He's always someone we have on our minds."