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Okada straying from beaten path with Ogasawara callup

by Andrew Mckirdy

As national team manager Takeshi Okada would have it, last week’s decision to end J. League player of the year Mitsuo Ogasawara’s three-and-half-year international exile was just the next step on his road map toward the World Cup.

Reading between the lines, however, it seems the manager is scrambling to change direction less than five months before the tournament begins.

Okada named Ogasawara in his squad for the Feb. 2 friendly against Venezuela, marking the Kashima Antlers captain’s first involvement with the national team since Japan’s last match at Germany 2006.

“I had planned to take a look at him around this time,” Okada said on announcing the squad last Wednesday, but his comments about the midfielder have not always been so welcoming.

When asked about Ogasawara’s chances of returning to the fold last month, Okada praised the player’s ability but suggested his presence would be a disruption the team could do without.

“We have to think about the entire squad — the balance and how they work together,” Okada said. “It may be that eventually we will need someone with Ogasawara’s qualities, but right now we don’t. His stature is such that we can’t call him up and not use him.”

What Okada meant by this could be interpreted a number of ways. Perhaps he feared Ogasawara was a prima donna who would accept nothing less than a starting place. Maybe he felt he had enough leaders in the team and did not want too many cooks spoiling the broth. Or maybe he would simply prefer to concentrate on young players rather than veterans.

Whatever the reason, Okada was clearly not anticipating the need to call Ogasawara up. That he has now done so suggests not everything is going as smoothly as he would like us to believe.

But as Shunsuke Nakamura continues to struggle with Espanyol, the need for a Plan B is becoming ever more difficult to ignore.

The Spanish club’s sporting director, German de la Cruz, felt moved to give Nakamura a vote of confidence at the weekend, and with the playmaker unlikely to switch clubs in the January transfer window he could be in pretty bad shape come June.

Okada does not seem wholly convinced by Keisuke Honda, while Yoshito Okubo has gone seriously off the boil. And so, with less than five months to go before the World Cup, Ogasawara is auditioning for one of the most important positions in the team.

This, of course, paints a grim picture for Japan’s World Cup chances. Ogasawara is undoubtedly a fine player, but it is a desperate state of affairs that someone who has not appeared in almost four years is regarded as a possible savior.

Whether Okada should have called him up earlier is a moot point. What matters now is the World Cup, and the manager deserves credit for taking action.

Nakamura’s loss of form is pretty much the worst thing that could have happened to the team barring serious injury, but Okada has shown himself to be flexible and pragmatic in recognizing the problem.

It remains to be seen whether Ogasawara is the answer, but at least now Okada is asking the questions.