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Surprise callup breathes new life into Ogasawara’s World Cup hopes

by Andrew Mckirdy

National team manager Takeshi Okada handed reigning J. League player of the year Mitsuo Ogasawara a World Cup lifeline on Wednesday with a first callup since June 2006.

Ogasawara won the last of his 53 caps against Brazil in Japan’s last match at the 2006 World Cup, but the Kashima Antlers captain’s chances of appearing in this year’s edition looked slim after being consistently overlooked by Okada and his predecessor Ivica Osim.

But Okada laid down the gauntlet to the 30-year-old as he named an entirely home-based squad for next month’s friendly against Venezuela and East Asian Football Championship against South Korea, China and Hong Kong, challenging Ogasawara to force his way onto the plane to South Africa.

“Ogasawara is not the kind of player that you can keep on calling up and not using, so this is an important test for him to show what he can do,” Okada said. “I’m not doing this to put pressure on other players. I had planned to take a look at him around this time, and it’s the last chance I have to do so.

“I have been thinking of him more as an attacking midfielder than a defensive midfielder, and the squad is still a bit thin in that area when the foreign-based players aren’t here. Of course I’m looking at him with the World Cup in mind, but the squad won’t be announced before May 16. Nothing’s decided yet.”

Okada’s 25-man squad will be trimmed down to 23 after facing the South Americans in Oita on Feb. 2, and the manager is looking for confirmation that his ideas have taken root just five months ahead of the World Cup.

“This is the best squad I could choose from the players based in Japan,” he said. “The Venezuela game will be a good chance to check that the players have taken on board all that we have been doing, and then the East Asian Championship is a chance to take our game up a level further. Unlike the games we had at the end of last year, this time I’m expecting a serious challenge.”

FC Tokyo striker Sota Hirayama retained his place in the squad after marking his international debut against Yemen last week by coming off the bench to score three goals.

“Obviously the three goals were a big advantage, but I was very impressed by his attitude both in training and coming off the bench,” Okada said. “I feel he could be the sort of player we need in the squad, and I want to see more of him in the national team.”

Okada selected virtually a third-string lineup against Yemen with his key men resting at the end of the J. League season. Taisuke Muramatsu missed the game in Sana’a after being struck by illness, but the Shonan Bellmare defender has been given another chance along with new Nagoya Grampus recruit Mu Kanazaki.

“Muramatsu got the flu last time but he impressed me during the two days of training,” Okada said. “Kanazaki has been regarded as a high-potential player for a long time. He’s always involved in goals, he has impact moving forward and a good shot, but he’s still quite soft in some areas. He’s been on the fringes of the squad for a long time.”