Soccer

New stars shine for Samurai Blue

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

A squad in transition following a surprisingly successful run in the World Cup. A new head coach establishing his vision. A South American opponent ranked fifth in the world. A sold-out Saitama Stadium. An impressive win that fans will look back on as having set the tone for the upcoming four-year cycle and put the world on notice that Japan is ready to stand up and be counted.

On Oct. 8, 2010, the Samurai Blue stunned Argentina 1-0 despite possession of just 39 percent, holding off Lionel Messi and company to defend Shinji Okazaki’s goal midway through the first half.

It was Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s first match in charge after visa delays caused him to miss the September friendlies. He liked what he saw, eventually making the players from that game the core of his side that went on to capture the 2011 Asian Cup.

Eight years and eight days later, history, as it so often does, repeated itself.

Japan’s 4-3 friendly win over Uruguay on Tuesday night was a wild, sloppy and fun affair, the kind that makes one forget that neither team has anything on the line.

With possession split virtually equally, the end-to-end soccer on display offered plenty to delight the Saitama crowd, which was sent into bouts of delirium as Japan’s flashy trio of young attackers — Shoya Nakajima, Takumi Minamino and Ritsu Doan — set up chance after chance.

Nakajima was unfortunate to end the night without a goal, but did enable 28-year-old Yuya Osako to rifle the ball home in the 36th minute after his long-range shot was saved. Nakajima’s efforts, along with Minamino’s brace and Doan’s first international goal, carried the night and impressed even their most veteran teammates.

“Wasn’t it fun to watch them? If I hadn’t been selected, I’d want to go to the stadium and see them play,” joked defender Yuto Nagatomo, whose crosses frequently met Nakajima in the final third.

“I was trying to bring out the best in (Nakajima) and get him to have fun, and I feel like I was able to accomplish that. He reminds me of Shinji Kagawa when he was breaking out,that same level of talent.”

It’s no surprise that Nagatomo has fond memories of the Argentina upset: he can lay claim to being the only player to have participated in both matches.

“I think this team has the same momentum that we did in that first year or two under Zaccheroni,” the Galatasaray left-back said. “Tonight reminded me of Argentina, and I’d even say we played better than we did (eight years ago).”

It might be hard for Samurai Blue fans loyal to Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki to pick a favorite new attacker, but the star of the moment is undoubtedly 23-year-old Minamino, who is in his fifth season at Austria’s RB Salzburg.

According to sports analytics company Opta, Minamino led his teammates with five touches in the penalty area, tied for a team-best three tackles and forced a second-best eight turnovers. It was a masterful performance from a player who many argued should have made his senior international tournament debut in Russia rather than waiting for the Asian Cup, which starts in January in Abu Dhabi.

“There were things going through my mind when I wasn’t being selected for the national team, but I believed in myself and I’m glad I was able to stay patient and build up to where I am now,” Minamino said.

On Tuesday, the Cerezo Osaka youth product became the first Japanese player since Wagner Lopes in 1997 to open his international account with goals in three straight matches, following strikes against Costa Rica in September and Panama last Friday.

“I’m just focused on what I can do (for the team). Goals don’t matter if I can’t play in the Asian Cup or World Cup, so I need to find my footing and work hard,” he said.

And work hard he did: In addition to Japan’s opening and closing goals, Minamino assisted Doan’s strike just before the hour mark. The 20-year-old Doan forced a turnover at the edge of the attacking third, passed to Minamino, and rushed into the penalty area, cooly slotting home for his first international goal.

“I’m glad my first goal was as important as it was, in Saitama Stadium against Uruguay. I think I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” said Doan. “When Nakajima has the ball on the opposite side the defender ends up watching him, so as soon as I run forward I feel like I have a chance to score.”

With Minamino, Doan, and Nakajima all flourishing for their respective clubs, some believe it’s simply a matter of time before all three move upward to bigger European sides where they can reach their peak.

“Once they gain a better tactical understanding of when to attack and when to defend, they’ll be able to play at a top level,” Nagatomo said. “I hope they all move to bigger clubs so they can work with better players and get that experience.”

Their potential did not go unrecognized by Osako, the Werder Bremen striker who served as the linchpin for Japan’s possession in the Uruguay end but missed several goalscoring opportunities besides the one he converted to give Japan a 2-1 lead.

“We have a lot of players who are moving up the pitch, and I have to corral them or else we’ll struggle,” Osako said. “It’s great that our young players are driving so hard for the goal, and things will work out if the more experienced players can control them.

“It’s great that everyone enjoyed themselves but we have to calmly analyze this match. We can’t get too caught up in a friendly result.”

Yet even conceding three goals — including a howler of a defensive miscue by Genta Miura that allowed Uruguay to make the score 2-2 — was not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of newly appointed captain Maya Yoshida.

“I think overall we played well. Of course we conceded three goals, which shouldn’t happen, but if we compare (ourselves) to Uruguay, which is top of the rankings … I think (it was) a historic victory for us,” the Southampton center-back said.

“Of course it was a friendly. But I was so impressed by the guys who play in front. I think (Moriyasu) is really happy with (the new attackers). That’s why we only changed two players. Because everyone played well, it’s difficult to choose substitutes.”

One of the biggest questions following Moriyasu’s appointment was where he would find goals. Now, as he prepares for the Asian Cup, it appears as though he’s already found his answer.

“(Minamino, Doan, and Nakajima) attacked and defended aggressively,” the head coach said. “They were all involved in goals and they showed that they wanted to carry the offense. Now they have more confidence and I want to see them feed that confidence back into the team.”