YOKOHAMA // Japan and Australia will face their toughest test so far in this World Cup qualifying campaign when they meet tomorrow. Australia, who joined the Asian confederation after the 2006 World Cup, lead Group A with nine points from three wins approaching the halfway stage of the last round of qualifying. Japan are on seven points, with two wins and a draw.
Pim Verbeek, the Australia coach, has tried to put the pressure on Japan - saying they need to produce a win at home. Whether the Dutchman, 52, was playing mind games is anyone's guess, but he is probably right. A loss would not spell disaster for Japan, but it would make things more difficult for the coach Takeshi Okada, who steers the team for his second stint after Bosnian Ivica Osim suffered a stroke in 2007.
Under Okada, Japan have not lived up to the standard expected of one of Asia's top teams. "Everybody understands that Australia is a top-level team,» Okada said. "They are big and strong so it will be a difficult match, but I'm looking forward to it." Okada has called up five Europe-based players including the Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who arrived in Japan last week and should be well-rested.
Okada faced harsh criticism After a 1-0 loss to Bahrain in an Asian Cup qualifier last month, but a 5-1 win over Finland in a friendly last week gave Japan a shot of confidence heading into the match at Nissan Stadium. Forwards Shinji Okazaki, who scored a pair of goals against Finland, and Wolfsburg's Yoshito Okubo should give Okada plenty of options up front. Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa will be called on in defence to deal with the likes of Everton midfielder Tim Cahill and Nakamura's Celtic teammate Scott McDonald. Like Okada, Verbeek will rely heavily on Australia's overseas players.
The Dutchman included only one A-League player in the squad after a disappointing scoreless draw by a team of domestic-based Socceroos in Indonesia last month in an Asian Cup qualifier. "They have home advantage in a great stadium with great fans," Verbeek said. "But our advantage is that my players are very experienced in international football." One break for Japan is the likely absence of Harry Kewell.
The midfielder is attempting a comeback after a hernia operation in mid-December and did not play in Galatasaray's 1-1 draw with Kayserispor at the weekend. The top two teams from each of the two five-team groups in Asia will qualify for the 2010 finals in South Africa. Qatar, Uzbekistan and Bahrain are the other teams in Group A. * AP