/

Hotly tipped goalkeeper Nakamura enjoying first taste of national team

by Shintaro Kano

Kyodo

Having been instrumental in Kashiwa Reysol’s surge to the top of the J. League on an eight-game win streak, goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura has earned his first Japan call-up for Wednesday’s friendly against Syria and the World Cup qualifier away to Iraq next week.

The 22-year-old went through his first training session with the national side on Monday at Ajinomoto Stadium, where the studious custodian took in as much as he could from two-time World Cup keeper Eiji Kawashima and No. 2 Masaaki Higashiguchi of Gamba Osaka.

“Both Kawashima and Higashiguchi are excellent shot-stoppers, but I hope I can keep up with them,” Nakamura said. “I learn a lot from them. I don’t get to work with them on an everyday basis, so it was nice just having the opportunity to be around them.

“It’s all new to me and I’m not in my usual routine, but I want to do what I can.”

It remains to be seen whether Nakamura, touted to be Japan’s future in goal as early as next year’s World Cup in Russia, will make his international debut in the two games this month, but his selection clearly underlines the expectations of coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

Kawashima, now 34, has largely held the No. 1 job since the 2010 World Cup, but few have challenged the Metz man for the position. After Kawashima, no one has stood out among the likes of Higashiguchi, Urawa Reds’ Shusaku Nishikawa or FC Tokyo’s Akihiro Hayashi.

But Nakamura, who played for Japan at the Rio Olympics, where Makoto Teguramori’s side was knocked out in the first round, is showing signs he could be Kawashima’s heir apparent with his athleticism, cat-like reflexes and good command of his area.

Nakamura could be the most exciting Japanese keeper since Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who appeared in two World Cups and had a knack for raising his game on the big stage.

Nakamura said he will be ready if he gets the nod from Halilhodzic.

“If I get the chance to play, I’ll play the way I always play — with the aim of making sure my team wins,” he said.

Gamba’s Yasuyuki Konno has rejoined the squad after making his comeback from a broken toe suffered in March’s World Cup qualifier away to the United Arab Emirates.

But having only returned to the pitch on Sunday with 30 minutes off the bench in Gamba’s 3-0 defeat at Jubilo Iwata, how — or if — Konno will go in these two internationals is up in the air.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re here,” Konno said. “Everyone knows how important these games are — they help determine whether we go to the World Cup finals or not.

“I put in a lot of work during rehab and I feel like I’ve recovered a great deal. Yesterday, I went into the game with the team down by three and was asked to get our attack going, but I couldn’t change the game.

“All I can do right now is keep training hard and play as hard as I can if I get a game,” he said. “I need to play to my strengths which are things like being strong on the ball and maintaining a high work rate.

“If I can’t do that, I’m no good.”