Defending champions wary about favoritism tag at Asian Cup
NEWCASTLE, Australia (AP) — Japan forward Keisuke Honda is uncomfortable with his team’s status as favorites at the Asian Cup.
Honda and his Japan side play their first match Monday against a fledging Palestinian team considered a huge underdog against the defending champions.
It should provide a comfortable start to the Blue Samurai’s title defense, but Honda rejects the pre-tournament hype and the short odds on offer for Japan winning back-to-back Asian Cups.
The Milan forward says “we are expecting some very difficult games at the Asian Cup ... all teams, are strong” and said complacency “is the great enemy.”
Javier Aguirre, hired in August to replace Alberto Zaccheroni as Japan coach, has since become embroiled in a match-fixing investigation from his time in the Spanish league.
Aguirre denies any wrongdoing, and Japan defender Maya Yoshida says the team hasn’t been distracted by the allegations against its coach.
“When we started the training camp the manager and the training director explained about this issue to the players but I came here a little bit late because of my English competition,” said Yoshida, who plays for Premier League side Southampton. “I understand the situation and I feel very comfortable with him so it’s nothing at all. We should just focus on football.”
Japan (52nd) is just behind Iran (51st) in the FIFA rankings but has a wealth of Asian Cup experience — and silverware — winning the trophy four times in 1992, 2000, 2004 and in 2011.
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawasima was more optimistic than some of the players in front of him on the pitch.
“Our minimum aim is to win the Asian Cup, we have to get victory,” Kawasima said Thursday. “To be the best team at this tournament we have a long, hard road ahead. We have to forget about the 2011 victory if we want to overcome the challenge of winning here.”
Japan plays its second match in Group D against Iraq on Jan. 16 in Brisbane and its third against Jordan at Melbourne on Jan. 20, the final day of group stage competition.
The final is scheduled for Jan. 31 at the former Olympic stadium in Sydney.