Socceroos concede favorite tag to Japan in Group B
It wasn't even an attempt at gamesmanship when Lucas Neill declared Japan the favorite for the biggest clash so far in the latest round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The Japanese squad is fresher, faster and younger and has maximum points from its first two matches. They even arrived in Brisbane before Australia - which took a point from a draw at Oman on Friday - and had a much shorter flight than the hosts.
''I think Japan is the favorite for this game. They have had a better preparation - two home games - now they come here with confidence,'' Australia skipper Neill told a news conference on a cool and wet winter Monday in Brisbane. ''They came here earlier than we've come here, to play at our home.''
''But by no means do we see that as a bad thing - We like the underdogs tag. We know we're in for a very tough game. It's going to be a fantastic game tomorrow night, and one that we believe we can win.''
With the likes of Manchester United-bound Shinji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda anchoring the team, Japan thrashed Jordan 6-0 on Friday after opening with a 3-0 win over Oman.
Even Australia coach Holger Osieck had to concede that his counterpart Alberto Zaccheroni could be assembling a squad that evolves into Japan's best ever.
''The new generation is a free generation, an open-minded generation. They are not afraid anymore,'' said Osieck, who has coached in Japan and has a long association with the country. ''Their different mindset reflects in the performance on the field. They are a different generation of players playing in the top teams in Europe and I think that is the significant difference.
''It's a great potential in this team, I have to admit. I mean, look at the quality.''
In other Asian qualifiers Tuesday, 2007 Asian Cup winner Iraq takes on Oman on neutral turf at Doha in Group B, while South Korea hosts Lebanon and Iran is at home to Uzbekistan in Group A.
Australia and Japan have a regional rivalry that has been intensifying since the Socceroos came back with three late goals - including a pair to Everton midfielder Tim Cahill - to win their opening match 3-1 at the 2006 World Cup. But while Australia will still be relying on the same stars on the sixth anniversary of that match, the Japanese have been developing more depth and players with experience in Europe.
The Japanese have overhauled Australia in the FIFA world rankings and are the top team in Asia.
''Australia lost to Japan in the Asian Cup. That's why they're No. 1 in Asia in my mind, because they beat us in a tournament that counted,'' Neill said. ''But in our team, we don't believe we're second best. We're playing against a team that we have lost to in a cup final, but now we know they're a strong team we want to beat to get to the World Cup.''
A win, he said, would be part of the healing process for the Australians, who lost last year's Asian Cup final 1-0 when substitute striker Tadanari Lee slammed in a left-foot volley in extra time for Japan. The ledger stands at six wins apiece and six draws in all meetings between Australia and Japan.
Cahill and Japan-based Josh Kennedy didn't get any game time against Oman but, while Osieck said he hasn't selected his starting lineup, at least one of them is expected to go on against Japan to give the Socceroos some aerial threats.
Kagawa said immediately after the win over Jordan that the away matches would be a much tougher challenge for Japan, a point which Japan captain Makoto Hasebe emphasized after the squad arrived in Brisbane.
''This game will be a completely different animal to the first two games,'' Hasebe was quoted as saying in the Japanese media. ''We're definitely on a roll with the two wins, but we need to forget about it and regroup for the next one.
''Complacency comes from the mind so we can't let up mentally. We need to brace ourselves for something totally different.''
As the top ranked teams in each group, Australia and South Korea had an opening day bye to start the fourth round. But while the Australians are already playing catch up, the South Koreans opened with an impressive 4-1 win at Qatar and top Group A on goal percentage from Iran.
South Korea's first home match is against Lebanon, the lowest-ranked of the 10 teams still in contention in Asia.
Lebanon is traveling for the first time in this stage after a 1-0 loss to Qatar and a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan, both at Beirut.
''Against Qatar and Uzbekistan, if we had a little luck we could have won by 2 or 3 goals,'' said coach Theo Bucker, who is aiming for third place in the group. ''We have the right to dream but must be realistic - under no circumstances can we compare ourselves with Korea. We are not stupid and nobody believes we are here to win. We want to play well and learn.
''To lose 2-1 or 3-1 is a reasonable result.''
The top two teams in each group secure an automatic spot at the 2014 World Cup. The third-place teams will meet for the right to go into an intercontinental playoff against the fifth-ranked South American team for a spot at Brazil.