Vol. 5 Num 731 Sun. June 18, 2006  

Japan v Croatia
Injury worries plague preps

Fitness fears gripped both Japan and Croatia as they geared up for a must-win match here on Sunday to keep alive their World Cup targets of at the very least surviving the first round.

Japan coach Zico has switched the Asian champions from a solid 3-5-2 system to more offensive 4-4-2 with two sidebacks joining central midfield in attack, following the crushing 3-1 defeat to Australia in their opener.

"It is the best formation for a must-win match," said Zico, a star of three Brazilian World Cup campaigns. "We must score goals against Croatia and concede none. That's all."

But his playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, a former Reggina midfielder who has just renewed his contract with Scotland champions Celtic, is nursing his right thigh which was bruised twice in Monday's match against the more physical Socceroos.

Nakamura, whose speculative cross found the net in a freak goal against Australia, played without showing signs of injury in an internal practice match on Friday after spending two days off team training.

Croatia coach Zlato Kranjcar, for whom a first-round exit would be a "total failure", reclaimed his bragging rights after the 1998 World Cup semi-finalists showed resilience in losing 1-0 to five-time world champions Brazil on Tuesday.

"We've shown that were more than capable of going further in the tournament," he said.

But Croatia captain and hard-working midfielder Niko Kovac was bruised in the right rib in a clash with Adriano in the Brazil game. The Balkan side resumed full training on Thursday but Kovac ran 15 minutes and pulled out.

Kranjcar said if Kovac cannot play against Japan he will be replaced by his understudy Jerko Leko, a tactical player with the Bulgarian club Brugge. "Ive got every confidence in him," the coach said.

Kovac insisted, "We have a realistic chance of winning against Japan and Australia." "If you don't take the chances you get and you let the opposition take their one chance, you lose."

Japan proved to be goal shy as they failed to hold on to an early lead both in a recent 2-2 warm-up draw against hosts Germany and in the Australian game. They bungled several scoring chances while running themsleves into the ground to hold tight in defence.

Nakamura was inspired by Kaka's winning goal struck from outside the box against Croatia and said Japan must do likewise.

The left-footed 27-year-old scored a goal and made another in a 2-2 draw against Brazil in the Confederations Cup first round in Germany last year.

Japan's most famous midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata of Bolton said Zico's formation change would get the job done.

"We'll have to score more. That's simple," said the 29-year-old, playing in his third World Cup since Japan made a winless debut in 1998. "The problem was we didn't score when we should."

Croatia showed weaknesses as well, said Brazilian-born defender Alessandro "Alex" Santos, Japan's weapon on the left wing.

He said right midfielder Darijo Srna, the five-goal hero of Croatia's qualifying campaign, did not move fast enough. ""He didn't seem capable of boring a hole in the side."

Croatia may also play cautiously due to three yellow cards through Kovac and two defenders, his younger brother Robert and Igor Tudor.

Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, the Japanese goalkeeper who played in a 1-0 loss to Croatia at France 1998, said the Balkan side are "well organised now" but no longer have such outstanding stars as David Suker and Zvonimir Boban "who could change the situation by themselves."

The two countries, both playing in their third World Cup since their 1998 debut, stand even head-to-head as Japan beat Croatia 4-3 in a home friendly in 1997. Japan reached the round of 16 at the 2002 finals.


Japan (4-4-2)

23-Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (90-0); 21-Akira Kaji (43-1), 5-Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (70-3), 22-Yuji Nakazawa (51-9), 14-Alex (73-5); 8-Mitsuo Ogasawara (51-7), 7-Hidetoshi Nakata (75-11), 15-Takashi Fukunishi (63-7), 10-Shunsuke Nakamura (61-16); 9-Naohiro Takahara (42-17), 13-Atsushi Yanagisawa (57-17)

Croatia (3-4-1-2)
1-Stipe Pletikosa (51-0); 7-Dario Simic (81-3), 4-Robert Kovac (57-0), 3-Josep Simunic (43-3); 2-Darijo Srna (37-9), 5-Igor Tudor (53-3), 10-Niko Kovac (59-8), 8-Marko Babic (34-3); 19-Niko Kranjcar (22-3); 17-Ivan Klasnic (21-7), 9-Dado Prso (30-9)

Croatia striker Dado Prso (R) and defender Dario Simic vie for the ball during the team's training session in Bad Bruckenau on Thursday. PHOTO: AFP