While you never want to read too much into February friendly results, two of Asia’s powers provided another hints of growing gap at the top of their region. Japan, who sit eight points clear of Australia in their World Cup qualifying group, posted the expected rout of Lativa, winning 3-0 in Kobe. South Korea, on the other hand, were overwhelmed by Croatia, embarrassed 4-0 at Craven Cottage.
The loss may prove inconsequential for Choi Kang-Hee, but for a head coach trying to gauge his team ahead of the March re-start of World Cup qualifying, the embarrassment will need some processing. Croatia is better than any team Korea will face over qualifying’s last four matches, but after such a lopsided neutral site result, Choi has a decision to make. Is this a one-off — the type of atypical performance from which you can’t make any assumptions — or is it a sign that a team who qualified for the second round of 2010’s World Cup is losing ground on the rest of the world?
Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic put the Croats up in the 33rd minute after heading home a cross from defender Ivan Strinic. Captain Darijo Srna made the lead two just before halftime, and substitute Nikica Jelavic added a third 12 minutes into the second half. Jelavic then assisted on the final goal, an 85th minute tally from Fulham’s Mladen Petric.
With three of their last four qualifiers at home, there’s little chance Korea will miss Brazil 2014. They’re one point behind Uzbekistan in AFC’s Group 1 and have both a match in hand an a home date with the Uzbeks. But for a team with South Korea’s recent accomplishments, World Cup Qualifying should be a given. Results like today’s, however, provide a hint the team’s failing to gain ground on their global competition. How big a hint will depend on how well the team responds to Wednesday’s shock.
Like Korea, Japan’s main challenges lie outside the Asian reason, though none of those obstacles were present in Kobe on Wednesday. Instead, European minnows Latvia were convinced to make the long trip East, allowing the Samurai Blue a home date during the short international break. Not surprisingly, the result was a lopsided score, one that could have been even more one-sided.
The result put all of Japan’s weapons on display, starting with Shinji Okazaki. The Stuttgart striker scored twice including the opener in the 41st minute, an effort that prolonged the form that’s made him the joint-top scorer in Asian qualifying. Sandwiched between Okazaki’s double was Keisuke Honda’s 13th international goal, the CSKA attacker finishing after a pass from Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa.
The trio is part of a Japanese team that’s developed enough talent to have a puncher’s chance against anybody in the world, and unlike their South Korean rivals, they’re building toward Brazil 2014. Returning to Asian qualifying, the Koreans need to regain their feet, while the Japanese will look to widen the gap.