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Japan's strikers firing blanks

© Reuters 2002

By Alastair Himmer

TOKYO, March 6 (Reuters) - Japan coach Philippe Troussier has had enough on his plate worrying about the fitness of several key players as he attempts to finalise his 23-man World Cup squad. But now he also has to deal with a crisis of form and confidence amongst his leading strikers. Hidetoshi Nakata has struggled at Parma since his $26 million move from AS Roma in July and Junichi Inamoto, another Japan regular, has yet to make his premier league debut for Arsenal since moving to England last summer.

Japan goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi looks set to leave English first division club Portsmouth after losing his first-team place to veteran Dave Beasant in January.

On top of that, World Cup co-hosts Japan have been hit by injuries to a number of experienced players, including Jubilo Iwata pair Hiroshi Nanami and Toshihiro Hattori.

But as a squad of 34 Japan-based players prepare to assemble for a two-day training camp in Shizuoka next week, Troussier now has to contend with a confidence crisis affecting leading strikers Atsushi Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki.

The Kashima Antlers duo have failed to find the target in four matches for the Japanese champions this season, including three matches in the Asian club championship last month. Yanagisawa has proven to be something of an enigma since becoming a permanent fixture in the Japan side two years ago.

Nine goals in 22 internationals, including a spectacular volley in Japan's 1-1 draw with Italy in Saitama last November, point to huge potential and Yanagisawa turned down a move to Italian club Perugia last December.

But he has had his run-ins with Troussier in the past, most famously when he broke curfew to see his model girlfriend and was caught sneaking back into the team hotel after midnight in 2000. Yanagisawa has always bounced back, however, and the 24-year-old already looks to have cemented a starting spot at the World Cup with five goals in his last six matches for Japan.

But Suzuki, who scored twice on his full international debut as Japan beat Cameroon 2-0 in the Confederations Cup last June, is desperate to recover his form in time for the World Cup. The physical 25-year-old has even been staying behind for extra training at Kashima in a bid to regain his sharpness.

"I need to go back to basics. It's nothing I can put my finger on but it is up to me to score goals. Good players do that on a regular basis," Suzuki told reporters this week. Troussier will be hoping that Suzuki and Yanagisawa are among the goals when Kashima face Shimizu S-Pulse at home on Saturday.

Akinori Nishizawa - who returned to Cerezo Osaka in January after being released by English club Bolton Wanderers - has never really convinced for Japan since he scored five goals at the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000.

Meanwhile, Naohiro Takahara, who also returned to Japan recently following a spell at Boca Juniors, has yet to recover fully from a niggling ankle injury.

The serious business begins for Japan with the visit of Ukraine on March 21 and a friendly against Poland in Lodz on March 27, both of which will give Troussier more of an idea who will play alongside Yanagisawa at the World Cup.

Reports provided by

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