Japan manager Takeshi Okada called up Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura for the first time Thursday as he prepares for June’s do-or-die World Cup qualifying matches with two friendly matches later this month.
Japan squares off against Cote d’Ivoire and Paraguay in the Kirin Cup on May 24 and 27, in a final tuneup before completing the first-round qualifying schedule with four matches all within the space of next month.
Okada decided against selecting Nakamura for Japan’s previous World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain in March, in an apparent bid to appease the midfielder’s club during a busy league schedule.
But the decision backfired spectacularly as Japan crashed to a 1-0 defeat in Manama, and Okada is taking no chances for the Kirin Cup warmup by calling on Nakamura and fellow Europe-based players Daisuke Matsui and Makoto Hasebe.
“I have seen videos of their games in Europe, and now I want to see what they can do,” Okada said.
“Nakamura is extremely skillful and has great dead-ball technique. He arrives around the 23rd, and the Cote d’Ivoire game is on the 24th, so he won’t be here in time for that, but he should be OK for the game against Paraguay.
“Of course we are looking to win this tournament, but this is really geared toward our qualification matches afterward. The players are tired from playing in the J. League, so once we get them together we can assess their condition.”
Okada named few surprises among his 27-man squad, with Kawasaki Frontale’s Yusuke Igawa the only uncapped new face.
“Igawa is fast and strong and I have been watching him for a while,” Okada said.
“His performances in the J. League have been excellent, so I wanted to take a look at him.”
Influential midfielder Keita Suzuki and strikers Ryoichi Maeda and Seiichiro Maki were also included in the squad, despite missing games for their clubs in recent weeks.
“I haven’t called up any players who are away from their teams in rehabilitation,” Okada said.
“In Keita’s case, he is getting stronger and I think he can take part. Maeda may not be 100 percent, but I think he can also play a part. Maki is no problem at all, I heard whether he plays in the next (league) game depends on his coach.”
Japan’s first Kirin Cup match is against Cote d’Ivoire in Toyota, Aichi Pref., and Okada is relishing the prospect of testing his team against the likes of Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou.
“Cote d’Ivoire have the most players in Europe of any African country,” he said.
“All their players play in England, Spain, France and Germany, and they all have skill, strength and ability. I’ve watched a couple of their games on video, and their players are very powerful, but we’ll try to match up to them.”
Okada also thinks Paraguay will provide a good test on May 27 in Saitama.
“Paraguay have visited Japan many times, and they give me the impression of being a well-organized, strong defensive team who like to counterattack,” he said.
“I’ve heard they are currently first in the South American qualifying tournament, so they must be a good team.”
Japan’s next World Cup qualifying match is against Oman in Yokohama on June 2. Okada’s side then has two away matches, against Oman on June 7 and Thailand on June 14, before completing the program against Bahrain in Saitama on June 22.
Two teams qualify for the final qualification phase.