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Little time for Akira Nishino to choose World Cup squad

by Andrew McKirdy

While coaches all around the globe are putting the finishing touches to their squads for the World Cup this week, Akira Nishino will be making his first selection as Japan manager.

The Japan Football Association’s decision to fire Vahid Halilhodzic last month and parachute Nishino into the hot seat two months before the World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14 leaves the new man with just one game to run the rule over his players before the June 4 deadline for final squad submissions — a friendly against Ghana in Yokohama on May 30.

Nishino will name a 30-man squad for that game on Friday and then whittle it down to a final 23 on May 31. The complete absence of prior evidence makes predicting Nishino’s final selection almost impossible, but it can at least be assumed that he will not deviate too far from his predecessor’s choices at this late stage.

That means Eiji Kawashima (predicted World Cup squad members in bold) is likely to continue as Japan’s No. 1 goalkeeper, with Kosuke Nakamura and Masaaki Higashiguchi expected to serve as his backups. Urawa Reds’ Shusaku Nishikawa was Japan’s first-choice goalkeeper during the early stages of the qualifying competition, however, and his chances of a recall cannot be discounted.

Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai were all established members of Halilhodzic’s defensive unit, with Tomoaki Makino the most likely to play alongside Yoshida at center back. Hamburg’s Gotoku Sakai has proven himself to be a reliable backup who can perform in a number of defensive positions, while Kashima Antlers pair Gen Shoji and Naomichi Ueda have also been regularly involved over the past year.

FC Tokyo stalwart Masato Morishige has been in good form this season and offers plenty of experience, and Kawasaki Frontale fullback Shintaro Kurumaya is a lively if limited performer. But Nishino may be tempted to fill out his defensive roster with Wataru Endo, with the Urawa man’s versatility likely to be a valuable asset in Russia.

Captain Makoto Hasebe and Hotaru Yamaguchi are guaranteed places among the midfielders, while Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa can be confident of joining them after sweating on his World Cup spot under the skeptical Halilhodzic. Kagawa returned from injury on Saturday to make his first appearance for Borussia Dortmund since Feb. 10.

Yosuke Ideguchi would have been certain of a squad place after helping to clinch Japan’s World Cup berth with a memorable goal against Australia last August, but he has not played for Spanish second-division side Cultural Leonesa since Feb. 18 and cannot expect any favors from Nishino. That could open the door for Ryota Oshima or one of Gamba Osaka pair Yasuyuki Konno and Shu Kurata, although Gaku Shibasaki has done well with Getafe in Spain and could get the nod instead.

Further forward, Yuya Kubo and Genki Haraguchi can be certain of their seats on the plane, while Keisuke Honda‘s omission — once a real possibility under Halilhodzic — is surely now unthinkable. Takashi Inui is another who looks to have done enough to force his way into the final squad, while a bright showing by Portimonense livewire Shoya Nakajima in a pair of otherwise dismal friendlies against Mali and Ukraine in March could make him Nishino’s impact substitute of choice this summer.

That leaves one place among the attacking line behind the strikers still up for grabs, and Cerezo Osaka playmaker Hiroshi Kiyotake would have been confident of claiming it had injuries not derailed his chances. Mainz forward Yoshinori Muto has also suffered his fair share of problems in recent years, but he still looks better placed to make the cut than Takashi Usami or Takuma Asano.

At the point of the attack, Yuya Osako has been ever-present in recent times and will surely take one of the spots. Halilhodzic was also keen on Cerezo target man Kenyu Sugimoto and reigning J. League player of the year Yu Kobayashi, while remaining curiously indifferent to the indefatigable running and vast experience of Shinji Okazaki. The Leicester City man — Japan’s third-highest all-time goalscorer — surely brings too much to the table for Nishino to ignore, however, and could well find himself appearing at a third World Cup despite being sidelined for the past month with an ankle injury.

Nishino’s extended selection to be announced Friday will provide some clues as to who will be on the plane to Russia. But he will not have long to make up his mind.