YOKOHAMA – Gaku Shibasaki hopes he can take his first step onto the international stage Tuesday, hours after a fellow Aomori Yamada High School alumni tries to make sporting history with the world watching him — that being Kei Nishikori.
In New York on Monday, Nishikori will face Marin Cilic in the U.S. Open final, trying to become the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam title.
On the other side of the world, Kashima Antlers’ Shibasaki, who is two years younger than Nishikori, will look to make his highly anticipated debut for Japan in a friendly against Venezuela at Nissan Stadium.
Shibasaki had nothing but respect for the first Japanese finalist in a major, men’s or women’s.
“I don’t really see him as someone who went to the same school as me,” the 22-year-old Shibasaki said. “I just have a whole lot of respect for him as an athlete.
“As a fellow sportsman representing Japan, I think what he’s accomplished is tremendous.”
Nishikori was all the talk at the Japanese camp on Sunday.
“I met him with (Shinji) Kagawa because he happened to be there when we played Manchester United in a friendly this summer in America,” Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo said.
“What he’s done is amazing. He knows what it takes to compete at the highest level in the world. He’s come this far, I hope he wins it all.”
An astute reader of the game with veteran-like poise, Shibasaki was largely overlooked by ex-Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who called up the holding midfielder for the 2013 East Asian Cup.
But Shibasaki became a last-minute scratch for the competition that the likes of Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Manabu Saito seized to eventually win a place on this summer’s World Cup squad. Shibasaki, on the other hand, was never picked again by Zaccheroni.
Yet with the arrival of Javier Aguirre who has sworn to build Japan back up from scratch, Shibasaki has re-entered the national-team fray. While he did not play in Friday’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay, it’s expected Aguirre will hand Shibasaki his first cap with the Mexican wanting to see as many players as possible.
If Sunday’s training is any indication, Shibasaki will start on the left side of a three-man midfield next to Masato Morishige and Hajime Hosogai on the right.
At the back of a 4-3-3, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Mizumoto could be in central defense, flanked by Gotoku Sakai and Nagatomo. The front three is shaping up to be Keisuke Honda, Yuya Osako and Kakitani.
“I want to be able to create opportunities,” said Shibasaki. “I need to think about the balance of the team and let the game come to me. I don’t feel uncomfortable in the position I was in today. I’ll have a lot of options and I just need to keep talking to my teammates.”