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Asia Cup Qualifiers: India face mighty Japan

Champions Japan launch their defence of the Asian Cup with a qualifier against India, using the match as vital preparation for the World Cup in June.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2006 12:17 IST

Champions Japan launch their defence of the Asian Cup on Wednesday with a qualifier against India, using the match as vital preparation for the World Cup in June.

Japan's countdown to the World Cup in Germany got off to a sluggish start with a 3-2 loss to the United States, but they are hoping to build on the momentum after beating Finland 2-0 at home on Saturday.

"We have just started preparation for the World Cup and we still have some difficulties, but we are getting better and better in each game," said coach Zico.

"We are determined to form a solid team by winning the opener of the Asian Cup qualifying round against India next Wednesday," added the Brazilian.

Japan have been drawn with India, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in Group A for the Asian Cup, with the top two going through to the finals co-hosted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in July next year.

Zico is without his Europe-based players, led by Bolton midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata and Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, but has beeen encouraged by the return of striker Tatsuhiko Kubo after a 17 month injury layoff.

He scored against Finland, his first goal since June 2004 and his ninth for Japan— the second best under Zico's wing after Nakamura who has scored 10.

"He (Kubo) showed an ideal positioning to receive a pass. It gave us the victory and I'm sure he gained a lot of confidence," said Zico.

"I'm going to replace some players for the match against India, but I'm going to use Kubo as long as possible. That's the best way for him to get into his rhythm."

Japan Football Association president Saburo Kawabuchi wanted to use the Olympic team for the qualifying round, but Zico held firm, determined to use the games to prepare for the World Cup.

A goal at the Yokohama stadium on Wednesday would be the 100th since Zico took charge following Japan's successful 2002 World Cup campaign.

"I just want the team to win without thinking about the historic goal," said Kubo.

India are led by East Bengal striker Baichung Bhutia, along with seven players from Federation Cup holders Mahindra United.

Bhutia, the cricket-crazy nation's most famous footballer, said he would not be intimidated by the pressure of being both captain and top scorer.

"On the whole I think it's very important that the team plays well, because it's a team-game after all, and we've got to stay focused and give our best," the Sikkimese striker said.

First Published: Feb 21, 2006 12:17 IST