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World Cup squad taking shape ahead of May 10 decision

by Andrew Mckirdy

With national team manager Takeshi Okada set to name his World Cup squad on May 10, Soccer Scene takes a look at the candidates. Names in bold are those predicted to make the final 23-man roster:

Seigo Narazaki is Okada’s No. 1 goalkeeper and is certain of making it to his fourth World Cup. Eiji Kawashima is his established deputy, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Shusaku Nishikawa should edge out Shuichi Gonda for the third spot.

Okada’s back four was practically set in stone throughout the qualifiers, so captain Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo are all on the plane.

Uchida’s recent illness troubles have prompted Okada to experiment with Yuhei Tokunaga at right back, but the FC Tokyo man has not seized his chance and should miss out to Yuichi Komano, who can fill in on either flank and already has World Cup experience.

Yasuyuki Konno is another Okada favorite who can play anywhere along the back line, leaving one more defensive place up for grabs. Daiki Iwamasa is the most likely contender, but Okada’s recent talk of using a three-man defense could open the door for Sanfrecce’s Tomoaki Makino.

In midfield, Shunsuke Nakamura, Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda and Junichi Inamoto are all guaranteed to make the cut, and Yuki Abe should be confident of joining them. Although the Urawa Reds man is no longer the mainstay he was under Okada’s predecessor, Ivica Osim, he is nothing if not versatile.

Kengo Nakamura is another whose spot is not quite the done deal it once appeared to be, but the Kawasaki Frontale playmaker is back in action after breaking his jaw and would be the obvious replacement should something happen to Endo or Nakamura’s namesake Shunsuke.

Mitsuo Ogasawara is another candidate to fill that role, but Okada appears reluctant to include him. Shinji Ono’s return to form has probably come too late, while Nagoya Grampus youngster Mu Kanazaki will have to wait until next time.

Instead the manager may be swayed by Tokyo winger Naohiro Ishikawa, who was one of the few to emerge from Japan’s friendly defeat to Serbia earlier this month with any credit. Now injury free, Ishikawa has pace, athleticism, and a flair for the spectacular that could make him Okada’s impact substitute of choice in South Africa.

Having scored 15 international goals in 2009 — more than anyone else in the world — no one will bet against Shinji Okazaki being the first striker on the list. Keiji Tamada and Daisuke Matsui are equally assured of their places, but others are still sweating on the final announcement.

Okada has been criticized for sticking by Yoshito Okubo despite the Vissel Kobe man’s stuttering form, and recent injuries have complicated matters further. Shinji Kagawa has taken well to life in the J. League first division, but it would still be a surprise if he manages snatch Okubo’s place. Hisato Sato, Shinzo Koroki, Tatsuya Tanaka and last season’s league top scorer, Ryoichi Maeda, also find themselves on the fringes.

Okada’s attempts to add variety to the attack have seen playing time for big men Sota Hirayama and Kisho Yano, but neither has done much to convince. The joker card may instead go to Catania’s Takayuki Morimoto, who has shown flashes of his potential and may be a useful option coming off the bench.