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Japan duo stuck in pre-World Cup slump

© Reuters 2002

By Alastair Himmer

TOKYO, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Japan's World Cup preparations have been hit by concerns over the form of Parma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata and Portsmouth goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who are struggling to keep their places at club level.

Both players are crucial to Japan's chances of progressing to the second round of this summer's World Cup finals, which the Japanese co-host with South Korea. Nakata and Kawaguchi were outstanding as Japan reached the final of the Confederations Cup on home soil last June. But Nakata has suffered an alarming dip in form in his first season at Parma which can be traced back to his decision to return to Italy for AS Roma's title run-in, rather than play in the Confederations Cup final against France.

After playing second fiddle to Francesco Totti at Roma, Nakata was given the opportunity to take centre stage when he joined Parma for $26 million last July. However, the 25-year-old playmaker has failed to establish himself at his new club and was recently linked with a loan move to Brescia. To make matters worse, Nakata is barely on speaking terms with Troussier after the Frenchman criticised him for

refusing to play in the Confederations Cup final in Yokohama, a match France won 1-0, albeit with considerable ease.

Troussier has made it clear Nakata cannot expect an automatic place in the Japan side and even relegated him to the bench for November's friendly with Italy in Saitama.

With Japan set to play eight friendlies between March and May, including visits to Poland, Norway and Spanish club side Real Madrid, time is running out for Nakata to press his case for inclusion in the World Cup party. Troussier is not short of options in midfield. Shinji Ono has been in a rich vein of form at Dutch club Feyenoord and Junichi Inamoto is steadily improving despite a lack of first-team football at Arsenal.

In goal, however, Troussier does not enjoy such strength in depth, with Gamba Osaka's Ryota Tsuzuki arguably best equipped to take over if Kawaguchi's crisis of confidence continues. Kawaguchi was heavily criticised after Portsmouth's humiliating 4-1 defeat at home to third division Leyton Orient in the F.A. Cup on January 6 and has since lost his place in the side to the ageing Dave Beasant.

Kawaguchi, who was a talismanic figure when Japan won the Asian Cup in Lebanon less than two years ago, did not even figure on the bench in last week's game with Wolves, fuelling speculation about his future at the south-coast club. With Nakata and Kawaguchi on song, Japan will fancy their chances of advancing from Group H - which also contains Russia, Belgium and Tunisia - especially with the added advantage of home support.

But question marks over two of their leading players are the last thing Troussier needs with a hectic schedule of matches coming up, beginning with the visit of Ukraine on March 21.

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