Soccer

Defender Sakai aims to make impact in Uchida’s absence

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo

Japan defender Hiroki Sakai is determined to capitalize on the injury-enforced absence of Atsuto Uchida and also cement his place in the team at right-back at the expense of his namesake after a solid performance in Thursday’s 4-0 World Cup qualifying warm-up win over Iraq.

“It’s difficult (to rate your own performance) but it is all about results and winning is everything,” Sakai told Kyodo News after Friday’s training session in Saitama.

“Iraq were difficult opponents to judge and they had to deal with jet lag and stuff and I don’t know how we would have dealt with them if we had been playing away. We had the advantage and maybe that is why we won.”

The Hannover defender has been brought in from the cold by new coach Vahid Halilhodzic, having fallen out of favor with previous Japan boss Javier Aguirre, who dropped him after a poor performance in the coach’s first game in charge — a 2-0 defeat at home to Uruguay last September.

With Schalke defender Uchida having just undergone knee surgery after suffering ongoing health issues since last year’s World Cup in Brazil, Gotoku Sakai was the preferred right-back for Aguirre during his short tenure, which ended when he was fired on Feb. 3 for alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal in Spain.

But Hiroki Sakai started in Halilhodzic’s first match at the helm against Tunisia in Oita in March, and after an assured performance on Thursday the former Kashiwa Reysol man is hoping to go from strength to strength.

“I am taking things step by step and I think I have been called up and been given the chance to play because Uchida is injured,” Sakai said. “Hopefully I can steal that position and take my game to the next level.

“Competition for places is healthy. Rather than me playing when I am not in good form, it benefits both myself and the team if players at the top of their game are getting picked. That is an absolute must in each position if the national team is to move forward.”

By his own admission, Sakai said he had not been at his best for his club when Aguirre was in charge of the Blue Samurai.

“National team aside, I wasn’t really happy with the way I was playing at Hannover. It is an honor to be picked for your country and it is all I can do to focus on my condition with my club. Obviously I wanted to be picked but I am just keeping my feet on the ground.”

“I thought eventually someone would come and take a look at me if I was playing (regularly) at Hannover.”

A product of Kashiwa’s youth system, Sakai was named the J. League’s Best Young Player in 2011 and he burst onto the international scene when he scored for Kashiwa against Brazilian powerhouse Santos at the Club World Cup in Japan that year.

His performances earned comparisons to Barcelona’s Brazilian wing back Dani Alves, thanks to his athleticism and willingness to storm up and down the right flank for 90 minutes.

But Sakai, who moved to Hannover in 2012, rolled his eyes back and laughed when asked his thoughts on those appraisals.

“That’s going back in time a bit, and when I was at Reysol I was given a free role,” he said.

“When you go abroad, the clubs have their own way of doing things and you have to be disciplined and accept that there are players above you in the pecking order.”

“There is a way that you want to play and there is a way that you have to play. I am not being given as much freedom as I was but I want to keep on plugging away so people will rate me as much as they did then.”

Japan plays Singapore on Tuesday in Saitama in its opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.