Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

East Asian tournament provides few clues for World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic may have learned a great deal from last week’s E-1 Football Championship, but it is open to question how much it will benefit him at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Japan finished second at the four-team regional tournament held at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium, beating North Korea 1-0 and China 2-1 in its first two games before coming spectacularly unstuck in a 4-1 mauling by eventual champion South Korea.

Halilhodzic picked an inexperienced squad for the competition in the absence of his unavailable European-based players, several injured J. League-based regulars and players from Asian club champions Urawa Reds, who were involved in the Club World Cup. The manager handed international debuts to nine players over the course of the tournament, and several of them gave a good account of themselves.

“One of my objectives was to take a look at players, and I used 21 or 22 so I was able to do that,” Halilhodzic said after Saturday’s defeat to the South Koreans. “We managed to get two wins, but even if I had my full A team I don’t know if we would have been able to beat South Korea today.

“This wasn’t my A team and I don’t know if it was the B, C or D team. But I can say that I called up the best players that I was able to call up this time.”

Among the players to catch the eye over the three games were Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura and club teammate Junya Ito, who both made their international debuts. Kawasaki Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi, who was named J. League player of the year earlier this month, also performed well and scored two goals, while Kashima Antlers defender Gen Shoji impressed as captain.

How many of those players make Halilhodzic’s 23-man World Cup squad, however, remains to be seen. Shoji and Yosuke Ideguchi would probably command a place in the manager’s first-choice starting lineup, while Nakamura and Masaaki Higashiguchi are expected to vie for the third-choice goalkeeper spot.

After that, it is anyone’s guess. Kobayashi, Shu Kurata, Yasuyuki Konno and Naomichi Ueda are all in with a chance of making the squad, but it would be no surprise if none of them are on the flight to Russia.

The E-1 tournament, previously known as the East Asian Cup, will also have left Halilhodzic feeling uneasy at how comprehensively his side was beaten by South Korea. The manager was right to point out that the team that plays at the World Cup will be almost entirely different to last week’s selection, but Saturday’s defeat was the first time Halilhodzic has lost by four goals since he took the job in March 2015 and Japan’s worst home loss to South Korea since 1954.

“I couldn’t sleep after the game,” Halilhodzic was reported as saying on Monday. “I was in my living room all the time thinking about it. In all the time I’ve been a manager, I had never conceded four goals at home before. This group of players wasn’t the full A team but they were candidates to be in the A team, so I wanted to aim as high as possible with them.

“I’ve heard that there have been a lot of critical articles written. I had also heard that I was criticized by coaches from Japan’s different age-group teams. That just makes me all the more determined to succeed.”

The East Asian tournament has had its benefits for Japan managers in the past. Alberto Zaccheroni’s 2014 World Cup squad featured seven changes to the group he took to the Confederations Cup a year earlier, and six of those new faces made their debuts at the East Asian Cup that was held between those two tournaments.

The odds of Halilhodzic following suit, however, look slim. Competition for places among his European-based players looks tight enough as it is without wild cards entering the fray, and there are only a handful of games left before the manager has to make his final decision.

“First I want to have a large group of 30 to 35 looking toward the friendly games in March,” Halilhodzic said on Monday. “When the March games are over, that group will be whittled down to about 30. From there the final 23-man squad will start to take shape.”

For Halilhodzic, the real work begins next year.