Japan coach to feel bite, Suarez or no Suarez
Japan coach Javier Aguirre claims the Asian champions are "starting from zero" as he takes charge for the first time in Friday's friendly against Uruguay, but the Mexican could quickly discover he does not have the luxury of time.
Even without Barcelona striker Luis Suarez, Uruguay have the street smarts to dash any hopes Aguirre may harbour of a honeymoon period after taking over the "Blue Samurai" following their World Cup flop in Brazil.
Japan also face Venezuela in Yokohama on September 9 and are scheduled to play four further friendlies, including a glamour game against Brazil in Singapore next month, before they open the defence of their Asian Cup title in January.
Failure to lift the trophy in Australia will provoke serious questions of the Japan Football Association's decision to splash out a record $2.5 million a year for the firebrand former Espanyol manager.
The tough-talking Aguirre has read the riot act before a ball has been kicked in anger, banning mobile phones from the dinner table at Japan's training camp and warning he will not tolerate prima donnas.
Only 12 of Japan's World Cup travelling party survived Aguirre's cull last week when he named his first, 23-man squad.
Aguirre, who led Mexico to the last 16 of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, said defiantly: "I don't care if players have been part of the Japan set-up in the past. That's irrelevant."
Paying lip-service to the J-League makes political sense but Japan-based players such as Yusuke Minagawa and Yoshinori Muto are unlikely to strike terror into opponents, while the decision to overlook free-scoring Gamba Osaka forward Takashi Usami raised eyebrows.
- Tearful apology -
World Cup trio Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo provide stability, but Aguirre left out playmaker Shinji Kagawa after he suffered a concussion in his last game for Manchester United before sealing his return to Borussia Dortmund.
The absence of Suarez, eligible to play friendlies for his country after appealing his four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, helps Japan's cause, especially after he caused havoc in last year's 4-2 win over the Japanese -- when he was also serving a suspension for biting.
Talisman Honda, who tearfully apologised to the nation for Japan's "pathetic" display after they were thumped 4-1 by Colombia in their final World Cup game, said the mood in the camp was positive before Friday's game.
"It's pretty upbeat," he told local media. "Spanish is a bit difficult but we can communicate (with Aguirre) in English. He cracks jokes and we're getting to see what kind of a person he is."
As Mexico manager in 2009 Aguirre was suspended for three matches for kicking a Panama player and he has demanded the Japanese players show more passion and "play for the shirt."
His energy has echoes of former Japan coach Philippe Troussier, whose bulldog style helped put them on the map by winning the Asian Cup and then steering them to the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup.
"I'm building a team which will be a force at the 2018 World Cup," insisted Aguirre, although Japan have had several false dawns, not least with Brazilian Zico's shambolic leadership at the 2006 World Cup and Italian Alberto Zaccheroni's failure this year.
The pressure is on Aguirre to justify his hefty salary, starting with the Asian Cup in Australia.
But as Zaccheroni painfully discovered, there is a gulf in class between the continent's top competition and the World Cup, and Aguirre can expect unusually intense scrutiny of his opening two games.