Kashiwa Reysol’s in-form striker Masato Kudo and FC Tokyo midfielder Keigo Higashi received their first callups as Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni named a 26-strong squad on Thursday for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Australia.
Kudo has scored 13 goals in the J.League and the Asian Champions League this season, including Kashiwa’s third in a 3-2 win over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Wednesday night.
Higashi, a member of Japan’s Olympic team which reached the semifinals in London last summer, could deputize for injured Keisuke Honda (thigh) if the CSKA Moscow man does not recover in time for the June 4 game at Saitama.
Japan can qualify for the World Cup with a draw to Australia, which it drew 1-1 with in Brisbane last June. Zaccheroni’s side warm ups for the Socceroos with a friendly at Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on May 30 against Bulgaria.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I’m always on the lookout for talented young players who show signs of progress,” Zaccheroni said.
“But I want to make it clear that one callup does not guarantee your place in the squad. You need to perform consistently at a high level, and let me remind everyone that I have picked new players before who have not made it back.”
“What I can say about these two is that they are good utility players who can fill a number of positions and are constantly improving. They are especially impressive when they get forward.”
The Italian said he will rename the squad after the Australia game for Japan’s last World Cup qualifier on June 11 to Iraq in Doha and the June 15-30 Confederations Cup.
“The moment of truth has come for my team,” Zaccheroni said. “We are a step away from qualifying for the World Cup. I don’t want to start calculating how many points we need and what not, but just focus on winning these two games before us.”
Japan Football Association technical director Hiromi Hara said 26 were chosen because Zaccheroni does not have complete grasp of the fitness level of the Europe-based players, who have just finished their seasons.
Some, like Honda and the Stuttgart duo of Shinji Okazaki and Gotoku Sakai, will not be able to join the squad until the day before the Australia game because of the Russian Cup final and the German Cup final.
While Yuto Nagatomo appears to have defied medical science by successfully returning from a torn meniscus without surgery, Honda, who suffered the same injury, is still in and out of action.
“It’ll be interesting to see what kind of shape they’ll be in as they all arrive on different days,” Zaccheroni said. “Honda is getting better but he’s not 100 percent and that’s why we have Higashi in the team. I’ll ask the players coming back from Europe to take it easy for the first, two three days.”
GK: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
DF: Yuichi Komano, Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuzo Kurihara (Yokohama F.Marinos), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)
MF: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba), Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Hajime Hosogai (Hertha Berlin), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Hideto Takahashi (Tokyo)
FW: Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo), Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart), Mike Havenaar (Vitesse Arnhem), Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremburg), Masato Kudo (Kashiwa Reysol), Keigo Higashi (Tokyo)