Japan head to Russia 2018 with expectations arguably lower than they have ever been as they get set for their sixth consecutive World Cup finals.
Former manager Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked just two months ago and new incumbent Akira Nishino has impressed few with a conservative squad choice.
Young talents like Leeds United’s Yosuke Ideguchi and Arsenal’s Takuma Asano have fallen victim to their lack of game time at their clubs despite the key roles they played in helping the Samurai Blue through the qualifying rounds.
Ideguchi and Asano
21-year-old midfielder Ideguchi’s superb goal against Australia in August last year sealed a vital 2-0 win after 23-year-old Asano had given the hosts the lead on the night. This victory sealed Japan’s place in Russia and the two goalscorers looked set to play a key role. But Ideguchi’s move to Leeds in January saw him immediately farmed out on loan to Spanish second-tier side Cultural Leonesa, where he failed to make an impact.
Asano joined Arsenal in 2016, but has spent the last two years on loan at Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. He has fallen out of favour in Germany and now with the national team. Ideguchi and Asano are on stand-by and have travelled with the squad for pre-tournament camp in Austria, but their chances of participating are now dependent on another player’s misfortune.
Gent’s 24-year-old striker Yuya Kubo and Portimonense’s 23-year-old attacking midfielder Shoya Nakajima are two other young talents who could have added some freshness to the squad.
Nishino, however, has gone for experience, with eight players over 30. Given the poor performance of the team in Brazil four years ago, it hardly inspires confidence. Back then, the Japanese team lost two and drew one in a group that featured Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast.
Kazu Miura cruelly cut in 1998
But this was not the first time, Japan’s World Cup squad announcement had made headlines as much for who was left out as who was included.
One of Japan’s greatest sporting shocks of all time came back in 1998 when legendary striker Kazu Miura was cruelly cut from the final squad by Takeshi Okada. At the age of 31, Kazu’s influence had been on the wane but it was still assumed that someone as talented and experienced would have something to offer as Japan made their first ever World Cup appearance.
In a warm-up match for the finals in Switzerland, Kazu skippered the side and hit a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory. A day later, he was told he was surplus to requirements in a squad that was hardly blessed with striking talent. As the country’s top scorer of all-time, it seemed more of a deliberate humiliation based on a personality clash rather than a decision based completely on merit.
Japan would go on to lose all three games of their campaign, scoring just once in a 2-1 defeat to Jamaica.
In 2002, it was mercurial playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura’s turn to face the axe. As a 21-year-old, Nakamura had made his breakthrough under Philippe Troussier as part of the team that won the AFC Asian Cup in 2000. But it was felt he was made a scapegoat when he fell out of favour following a 5-0 friendly defeat to France in 2001.
Nakamura seemingly returned to Troussier’s plans in the lead-up to the World Cup that Japan was co-hosting with South Korea. However, despite some impressive performances in the warm-up friendlies, Troussier left the Yokohama F Marinos star out of the final 23.
Unlike in 1998, the end perhaps appeared to justify the means as Japan progressed to the last 16 for the first time ever, but Nakamura’s silky skills and prowess from set pieces could surely have added an extra dimension to a squad that included the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono.
“It’s never too late”
Now in 2018, Japan has again been left unimpressed by a squad announcement that follows a turbulent build-up to the World Cup in Russia.
Halilhodzic, the manager who led them through the qualifying campaign, was sacked amid rumours of player unrest. There was a particular focus on the role of Keisuke Honda in his sacking, with the former AC Milan forward Tweeting soon after, “It’s never too late”.
Honda, like fellow veterans Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, had not always been first choices in the team under Halilhodzic, and this created an unease that was never far from the surface.
Former technical director of the Japan Football Association, Nishino, was soon appointed to replace the Bosnian and lead Japan to the World Cup. It was considered a safe but uninspiring appointment and his first match in charge saw the Samurai Blue slip to 2-0 defeat at home to Ghana on May 30th.
If that was a discouraging development, the announcement of the final squad for Russia hardly improved the mood.
32-year-old Honda now plies his trade with Pachuca in Mexico and his heroics from 2010 are still remembered. A CSKA Moscow player at the time, Honda struck the winning goal against Cameroon and was then man-of-the match in a 3-1 victory over Denmark as Japan reached the last 16 before going down to Paraguay on penalties.
But Honda has become less influential in recent years and was somewhat marginalised by Halilhodzic.
Okazaki, also 32, has also been selected, largely due to a strong goalscoring record for the national team, but his recent form hardly generates hope. He scored just six times for Leicester City in their 2017-18 campaign so cannot be expected to be in prolific form.
Playmaker Shinji Kagawa is three years younger at 29, but he is not the player he was in the thrilling early stages of his career at Borussia Dortmund. Nevertheless, his experience at a high level made him a difficult player to keep out.
There are still hopes that the old guard can combine with younger players like 25-year-old Mainz striker Yoshinori Muto and 26-year-old Getafe midfielder Gaku Shibasaki to form an effective team unit.
As in 2014, Japan have avoided the true heavyweights in the draw, facing Colombia (again), Poland and Senegal. However, the Japaenese people are less optimistic than they were four years ago. An estimated 750 fans saw off the national team when they headed for Brazil back in 2014. This year, reports suggest only about 150 wished the team well as they left for Russia via Austria.
Nishino’s faith in experience
Time will tell if Nishino’s faith in experience will pay dividends. Five of the players who featured in Japan’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon in their first game in South Africa in 2010 could start this year’s opener against Colombia on June 19th.
If the new manager gets things right, he will rightly be hailed for his sensible judgement. If he fails, however, his conservatism will be criticised and the decision not to select more young blood will undoubtedly be considered part of his legacy.
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