x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iraq's Zico set for nostalgic assignment against Japan

Zico, the Iraq coach, is bracing himself for an emotional encounter with Japan in his side's World Cup qualifier in Saitama, but is confident the 2007 Asian champions are capable of upsetting the hosts.

Iraq's Brazilian coach Zico. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA
Iraq's Brazilian coach Zico. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

TOKYO// Zico, the Iraq coach, is bracing himself for an emotional encounter with Japan in his side's World Cup qualifier in Saitama tonight, but is confident the 2007 Asian champions are capable of upsetting the hosts.

The former Brazil playmaker, who coached Japan from 2002 to 2006, said there would be no room for sentiment, however, and his team would tear into the home side right from kick off.

"Japan has been a big part of my life and always will be," Zico told local media yesterday. "It will be emotional. If I had the choice, I wouldn't be in the same group.

"That's football. It's an emotional and passionate sport but I have prepared my team to beat Japan. That's what being a professional is."

The Blue Samurai lead World Cup qualifying Group B by five points from Iraq, Australia and Jordan.

Japan beat Oman 3-0 and Jordan 6-0 at home before being held 1-1 in Australia in their first three games in the final round of Asian 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

"Obviously Japan are a very technically gifted team, especially players who control the midfield like [Makoto] Hasebe and [Yasuhito] Endo," Zico told the Nikkan Sports newspaper. "You can't give players like Hasebe and Endo space to get their heads up. You have to be pressing them all the time."

Japan, currently coached by the Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, captured a record fourth Asian Cup last year, while Iraq pulled off a stunning triumph at the previous tournament in 2007.

"Japan are the best team in the group. Zaccheroni has them playing a very attacking style," said the 59-year-old Zico, who led Japan to victory at the Asian Cup in 2004.

Elsewhere, Australia travel to Jordan aiming not only for a first win in the last full round of Asian qualifying, but also anxious to close the gap on Japan.

"We've not had an easy start," said Lucas Neill, the Australia captain who plays for Al Wasl, after a 3-0 warm-up win over Lebanon in Beirut last week.

That win, the Socceroos' first since February, helped relieve the pressure after two opening draws in the qualifiers and a disappointing 3-1 loss at Scotland in an international friendly in August.

"We've gained two valuable points, but we really need now to play to our best or near best to try and give ourselves the best chance of three points [against Jordan] because it sends a little bit of a statement to the rest of the group. It gives us a chance to keep on the heels of Japan, who have obviously got off to a fantastic start."

In Group A, three teams are vying for second spot behind South Korea, who have won both their games so far. "I believe that in our group we have one natural candidate to qualify and that is Korea," the Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"Then there is the second line which is Iran, Uzbekistan and Qatar. We can't forget Lebanon who can put one of one these teams out of the World Cup."

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