Japan's national soccer players Keisuke Honda (top R), Shinji Kagawa (top centre) and other players take part in a training session for the Asian Cup soccer tournament in Doha January 4, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]
TOKYO - Japan has dominated the Asian Cup for the past two decades, winning it twice and finishing as a runnerup.
This year it comes into the January 7-29 tournament in Doha, Qatar, not so much as favorite but as an untested giant. It has a new coach in Alberto Zaccheroni and a slew of young players who will be looking to prove that the team's 1-0 win over Argentina in October was no fluke.
Zaccheroni, 57, of Italy, took over from Takeshi Okada in August after an extensive search that dragged on for months. His experience in the Italian Serie A, including leading AC Milan to the title in 1999, impressed JFA officials.
The expectations will be high for Japan in Qatar. The Blue Samurai surprised many by reaching the round of 16 at the World Cup in South Africa last year with wins over Cameroon and Denmark in the group stage.
But the team has been forced to look to several fresh faces after veteran defenders Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Catania forward Takayuki Morimoto all went down with injuries.
Uncapped Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Tadanari Lee will fill in for Morimoto.
The 25-year-old Lee is coming off his best season in six years in the J-League, scoring a career-high 11 goals for seventh-place Sanfrecce.
Lee, who is of South Korean descent, played for Japan's under-23 team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but has never been called up to the senior national side.
"Lee absolutely deserves this opportunity," Zaccheroni said. "He won his place through his performances in the J-League this season."
Other players making their international debut are central defender Masahiko Inoha of Kashima Antlers, Albirex Niigata fullback Gotoku Sakai and Shimizu S-Pulse midfielder Takuya Honda.
"I have picked several young players for this Asian Cup," Zaccheroni said. "We will spend a lot of time getting ready and hopefully during that time, they will come to understand my philosophy."
In addition to the new faces, Zaccheroni has called up eight Europe-based players, including World Cup veterans Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg's Makoto Hasebe and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who plays for Lierse SK of Bbelgium.
Shinji Kagawa was also named to the 23-man squad.
The 21-year-old midfielder has been a sensation at Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund since arriving in the summer with eight goals from 16 league matches.
Other Europe-based players include Yuto Nagatomo of Italian side Cesena, Schalke 04's Atsuto Uchida, Maya Yoshida of VVV Venlo and Daisuke Matsui of Tom Tomsk.
Japan, which won the Asian Cup in 1992, 2000 and 2004, will open its Asian Cup campaign on January 9 against Jordan.