• Kyodo


With playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake sidelined due to injuries, Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic may call upon Belgium-based midfielder Ryota Morioka to provide attacking spark in Friday’s World Cup warm-up against Mali.

The 26-year-old, who has only four caps for the national side since his 2014 debut, plays club soccer with Belgian Pro League club Anderlecht, just a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the venue for the international friendly in Liege, an eastern Belgium city.

A late-season transfer from first-division side Waasland-Beveren, Morioka finished his first campaign in the Belgian top flight with 10 goals and 14 assists. The Kyoto Prefecture native now wants to impact the score sheet for the Samurai Blue.

“Personally, I want to be involved in scoring,” said Morioka, who began his European career with Polish club Slask Wroclaw after departing Vissel Kobe following the 2015 season.

“I’ve gained a lot of experience playing for a variety of coaches in different countries.”

With Halihodzic voicing his preference for players seeing regular game time with their clubs, Morioka is a strong contender for the World Cup starting in June in Russia.

Following the friendly against Mali, a young side comprised almost entirely of European-based players, Japan will play a second World Cup warm-up in Liege against Ukraine on March 27.

In addition to Kagawa and Kiyotake, Marseille defender Hiroki Sakai is unavailable for the two friendlies due to a right hip injury. With Southampton defender Maya Yoshida also missing with a knee injury, Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds) and Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers) are tipped to start against Mali as the central defensive pairing. Japan’s lack of lineup consistency at the back has been identified as one of their major weaknesses.

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