National team manager Takeshi Okada has warned his players they will be fighting for their World Cup lives at the East Asian Football Championship over the coming week.
Japan plays China on Saturday before facing Hong Kong and South Korea next week in a tournament that has increased in significance just four months before Okada’s side heads to South Africa.
The manager intends to take a good look at each of his 23 squad members over the three games in Tokyo, and insists the battle for the right back slot between Atsuto Uchida and Yuhei Tokunaga is not the only position up for grabs.
“It’s not just about who plays at right back,” Okada said on Friday. “It’s about every position in the team. If the players are scared of competition for places, then they’re not going to be able to do anything at the World Cup. All the players have to be prepared to fight for their places.”
Okada cut Shinzo Koroki, Takashi Inui and Naohiro Ishikawa from the squad that played out a 0-0 draw with Venezuela in Oita on Tuesday, and the members that remain can also expect to come under close scrutiny in the games ahead.
“A lot of things became clear from the Venezuela game, and although we haven’t had much time to work on them we’ve managed to get some good training in,” Okada said. “China have powerful, aggressive players, but we want to beat them playing our style of football.
“We’ve never won this tournament so that’s a motivation for us. Over the three games it’s my last chance to take a look at a lot of players, so I’d like to use as many of them as possible. Other than that I don’t intend to do anything really different at this tournament.”
Japan’s previous encounter with China at the regional tournament came two years ago in Chongqing, where a Koji Yamase goal gave Japan a 1-0 win. That match was only the fifth of Okada’s current reign as manager, and much has changed since then.
“At that time I had just taken over, and when the games were over the players’ mood was quite flat,” Okada said. “There were a lot of injured players and they had played a lot of games, and there wasn’t really much enthusiasm for the World Cup qualifiers to come after that.
“This time it’s a tournament at the start of a World Cup year, so I think the players have a better mind-set (now).”