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Battling performance leaves Nakamura’s place in doubt

by Andrew Mckirdy

After the trauma of last week’s defeat to South Korea, Japan salvaged some much-needed confidence — if not a result — against England. But if manager Takeshi Okada decides to stick with the revamped formation that served him so well on Sunday, where does that leave Shunsuke Nakamura?

Okada finally addressed his team’s soft spine in Graz by adding Yuki Abe as a defensive midfielder behind central pairing Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo, shoring up an area that has long looked in danger of being outmuscled and overrun in South Africa.

One attacking midfielder had to drop out as a result, and with Nakamura struggling with injury, Okada’s decision was made for him. After watching his side stifle Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard for the majority of the 90 minutes, however, finding a place for his most famous name suddenly becomes problematic.

Shifting the emphasis to defense may chafe with Okada’s purist instincts, but Abe’s presence steadied the ship and allowed Hasebe and Endo more time to devote to creative duties. The contrast with recent capitulations to South Korea and Serbia was striking, and the manager now looks to have found the best formula to tackle stronger opponents in South Africa.

Such an approach comes with heavy physical demands, however, and only players with the stamina to chase, harry and cover are capable of meeting the task. Going by recent evidence, that excludes Nakamura.

Few could have imagined a scenario where Yoshito Okubo would edge out the former Scottish Player of the Year for a starting place at the World Cup, but that is how things are shaping up less than two weeks before Japan’s opener against Cameroon. “The players I have chosen are not necessarily the best 23 individually but the best suited for the occasion,” Okada said upon naming his squad last month, and how prophetic his words sound now.

Nakamura proved he could withstand the hard knocks at Celtic, but his physical decline since then has been rapid. The 31-year-old has never been blessed with pace, and his failure to capitalize on one particular counterattack against the Koreans left his weakness brutally exposed.

Of course Nakamura can still play his part in South Africa, but as Okada’s resolve hardens, his star player’s contributions look more likely to come from the bench. The need to avoid an opening defeat means the manager is likely to err on the side of caution against Cameroon, while a gulf in quality should temper Okada’s approach in the second game against the Netherlands even if a win is required.

After being left out in 2002 and failing to do himself justice in 2006, the role of substitute deluxe would be a bitter disappointment for a player looking to make his final statement on the world stage. Nakamura cut short his dream move to Espanyol when it became clear his place in South Africa was in jeopardy, and surely even his biggest naysayers would sympathize if all the reward his efforts bring is a place on the bench.

But that is not to say he should be written off just yet. Nakamura has made a career of proving people wrong — don’t be surprised if he has one final trick up his sleeve.