Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic picked in-form Gent striker Yuya Kubo and also sprung a few surprises on Thursday as he named his 25-man squad for the upcoming friendly against Syria and World Cup final-round qualifier away to Iraq.
Kubo, who scored in Japan’s last two qualifiers and has bagged 11 goals since joining Belgian club Gent in January, was named as expected along with Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa for the June 7 match against Syria in Tokyo and the qualifier against Iraq in neutral Iran on June 13.
Bulgarian-based midfielder Kohei Kato, Urawa Reds defender Tomoya Ugajin and Gamba Osaka defender Genta Miura were all given their first national team call-ups.
“Some of you may not know much about him but I have been tracking him for one year,” said Halilhodzic of the 27-year-old Kato, who plays in the Bulgarian top flight for Beroe Stara Zagora.
“I have watched him play four matches in Bulgaria and have also watched video footage of him a number of times. He is aggressive and knows how to win the ball.”
“He is a similar player to (Cerezo Osaka midfielder) Hotaru (Yamaguchi), although not as powerful, and he is a good passer of the ball.”
“I am not planning on playing him straight away but this gives me a chance to take a look at him and see what’s what,” the Franco-Bosnian coach told a press conference.
Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa and fellow regulars, FC Tokyo center-back Masato Morishige and Cerezo’s Hiroshi Kiyotake, were dropped along with Augsburg forward Takashi Usami.
“This doesn’t mean they are axed for good. It simply comes down to some players playing better than other players. The players in the best form have the right to be picked,” said Halilhodzic.
Nishikawa and FC Tokyo’s Akihiro Hayashi were deemed surplus to requirements, with Rio Olympic goakeeper Kosuke Nakamura of Kashiwa Reysol getting the call and Gamba’s Masaaki Higashiguchi returning after missing the last two qualifiers against United Arab Emirates and Thailand with a fractured cheekbone.
“I am not satisfied with the way Nishikawa and Hayashi have been playing. Nakamura was fifth choice but has played a big factor in helping Reysol move near the top of the J. League,” said Halilhodzic.
Eibar forward Takashi Inui got his first call-up in two years.
Inui did his hopes of a recall no harm, scoring a brace against Barcelona in La Liga on Sunday, although he appears to be nursing an ankle issue.
With six league goals, Inui went one better than former Mallorca player Yoshito Okubo to become the top-scoring Japanese player in the Spanish first division.
“Inui is in competition with Usami but he has been in great form, especially against Barcelona, so he is the logical choice,” said Halilhodzic.
“It is good to have him back. I am not sure about his ankle but he will have medical tests and I will talk to him after that.”
With three qualifiers remaining in the final round, Japan tops Group B with 16 points, ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference. Australia is third with 13, and UAE fourth with nine. Iraq has four points and Thailand has 1.
Goalkeepers — Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders — Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Tomoya Ugajin (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Genta Miura (Gamba Osaka)
Midfielders — Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Shu Kurata (Gamba Osaka), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Kohei Kato (Beroe Stara Zagora), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka)
Forwards — Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Yuya Osako (Cologne), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Yuya Kubo (Gent), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart)