All of the signs coming out of the Socceroos camp ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier in Saitama is that they will rely heavily on what they claim is a mental edge over Japan.
But the bigger question is whether the under pressure Holger Osieck has instilled them with the game-plan to go with the perceived mental edge?
Particularly in the final 24 hours ahead of the game, the Roos have turned up the heat on the hosts, skipper Lucas Neill and others bringing up the Samurai Blue’s recent losses to Jordan and Bulgaria, the apparent jitters of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and the fact Japan haven’t beaten them in 90 minutes for a decade or so.
Neill also cites Japan’s upcoming Confederations Cup commitments and the fact they will have much of their focus there.
While there has been a bit of talk about replicating Bulgaria’s “suffocation” and “disruption” of Japan, most of the talk has been about the apparent edge in spirit.
The Roos say they can sense some nervousness among the Japanese players and an expectant nation as the qualification finishing line looms.
Patently the Socceroos are banking on staying with Japan early, getting into the game and get into the heads of Alberto Zaccheroni’s men.
The talk from the Japanese quarters has been that they expect the Roos to try and engage them in a physical arm-wrestle full of long balls into the likes of Tim Cahill and Josh Kennedy.
Whether Osieck plays both Kennedy and Cahill, or just the latter remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt a strong truth to Japan’s analysis of Australia.
While the German has flirted unsuccessfully with the idea of rejuvenating the side and style of play, too often he has reverted to a default modus operandi – a physical aerial bombardment from out wide and at set pieces.
For all the recent talk from the likes of Gary Lineker and Graham Arnold about the prehistoric football still emanating out of England, there are few more obvious examples of “old-fashioned football” than that dished up by our national coach.
The game-plan under Osieck has generally been a simple one, about moving the ball quickly into wide areas, usually on the right, and trying to get quick, quality delivery in to Cahill especially.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the second half of the most recent qualifier against Oman in Sydney, when Cahill came to Osieck and Australia’s rescue for the up-tenth time.
Even as far back as the 2011 Asian Cup, in which the Socceroos lost the final to Japan, the mode of progress was very much through the air and getting service in to Cahill and Harry Kewell, both very strong in the air.
It was only some very astute tactical work from Zaccheroni in the final, as I wrote at the time, which was able to nullify Australia in the end.
Fast forward to last year’s corresponding qualifier at Suncorp Stadium and what was clear is that Japan struggled to deal with the physicality, high tempo and aerial strength of the Roos.
To expect much different from Osieck tonight would probably be expecting too much, particularly given they feel that Japan are vulnerable to the high ball in the centre of defence.
There is a temptation to think, with the pace of Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and Brett Holman, that the Socceroos will try and sit back and rely on the counter-attack.
But with Cahill up high, the danger is you isolate him and nullify his aerial strength by sitting too depend and asking him to do pressing shuttles on the halfway line.
The hint from Osieck in an interview with SBS’s Scott McIntyre yesterday is that Australia will get on the front foot, be aggressive and try and disrupt a Japan side that like to circulate the ball quickly, use the overlapping width of Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida, and rely on the craft of Keisuke Honda and rapid final third play of Shinji Kagawa.
To do so the Roos will need to remain compact. There can be no weakness in the pressing chain.
If the defence starts to drop deep, an ailment under both Osieck and Pim Verbeek, then the entire formation will.
Yasuhito Endo will possess the ball and the Roos will struggle to mount too many attacks.
What they must do is get in the face of both Endo and Makoto Hasebe, and to that end the legs and growing tactical maturity of both Kruse and Oar should help, particularly with Holman offering pressing support.
What the Socceroos must be careful of is playing high, without any pressure on the ball. Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and the fullbacks would have a field day running onto Endo and Honda’s promptings.
It’s a fine balancing act for the German and he has to get it right.
With speculation about his future growing and Ange Postecoglou’s name continuing to surface, Osieck will need to demonstrate that he’s instilled his men with a game-plan to go with any perceived physical and mental edge.
Osieck said yesterday his side wouldn’t “hide” in Saitama, and the hope for the Roos is that by 10.30pm eastern time tonight he won’t be looking for a place of his own to hide.