Southampton defender Maya Yoshida urged Kashima Antlers’ Gen Shoji to grab the moment and win a permanent place on the first team after Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic dropped Masato Morishige from his back four for June’s internationals.
Yoshida, who has deputized as captain for both the Saints and Japan in the injury-forced absence of Virgil van Dijk and Makoto Hasebe, respectively, said on the eve of Wednesday’s friendly against Syria that Shoji must try to leave a lasting impression on Halilhodzic with Morishige out of the fold.
Apart from Yoshida, Shoji and Gamba Osaka’s uncapped Genta Miura are the only center backs on the current squad. Tomoaki Makino of Urawa Reds is an option, but does not play the position for his club.
Halilhodzic is widely expected to pick Shoji, who has just two caps under his belt, alongside Yoshida for the Syria game and — if all goes well — next week’s World Cup qualifier away to Iraq.
Yoshida said it was about time the likes of Shoji and Miura worked their way into the mix on a regular basis.
“He’s come across an opportunity and it’s up to him entirely to seize it,” Yoshida said of Shoji, 22. “He should have been where he is now ages ago. Be it Gen or Miura, they have to take this chance.
“The fact is, there aren’t a lot of good, young center backs around, and I personally felt the need for some to start coming through. So I think this is a good thing.”
Yoshida continued: “Gen’s got power, pace and coaches really well. But I haven’t played next to him so we’ll need to go over things in detail before the game. I’m not worried, but whoever I play with against Iraq, we will have to work on our combination.”
Shoji said he is ready for the challenge.
“I haven’t played aside (Yoshida), but I’m not new to Japan,” the Kashima man said. “I know the manager’s style of football. (Halilhodzic) is close to religious about keeping a clean sheet. We can put five past the other team but if we concede one, he won’t be happy about it.
“So for him to drop Morishige with this much on the line says a lot about his expectations for me, Makino and Genta, and we need to come through. I don’t think there’s a soul in the squad who hasn’t prepared for this.
“We haven’t been told yet who’s starting, but I feel like I’m ready and don’t think I need to do anything differently from what I do in the J. League. I’m confident of my performance in the J. League.”
Confidence is something Halilhodzic doesn’t appear to be short of. Japan is on top of Group B in the Asian final qualifiers with 16 points and three games remaining, ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference. Australia, which hosts the Saudis in qualifying on Thursday, is third, another three points back.
Victory over Iraq next week will put Japan in excellent position to qualify for its sixth consecutive World Cup, and Halilhodzic knows it.
“I have the Iraq game completely figured out,” he said. “We need players who are 100 percent fit, who are prepared to respond to anything they throw at us.
“The pitch will not be anything like the one here in Tokyo. We’re on top of the smallest details like that. Everyone is working hard, the team atmosphere is good.
“I can’t emphasize how important these games are. We win the Iraq game and we can be somewhat at ease as we prepare for the matches in August and September.”