New national team manager Akira Nishino handed Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki a World Cup lifeline on Friday when he named all three in his 27-man squad for Japan’s final game before he chooses his roster for next month’s tournament in Russia.
“You need players who can perform on the big stage,” said Nishino, who took over when the Japan Football Association fired previous manager Vahid Halilhodzic last month, citing a breakdown in communication and trust with the players.
“You can’t have players who freeze — players who tense up or can’t make the right decisions in the big games. If you choose players like that, there’s no way you will win.”
Japan will face Ghana in a friendly match in Yokohama on May 30, with Nishino set to trim his squad to 23 for the June 14-July 15 World Cup the following day. Players on the 35-man extended list that Nishino submitted to world governing body FIFA earlier this week can still be selected despite being left off Friday’s squad.
Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki — three of Japan’s most recognizable players — looked in danger of missing out altogether after being used sparingly by Halilhodzic during the qualifiers, but Nishino believes the so-called “Big Three” still have much to offer.
“Okazaki plays in the Premier League and every game there is tough,” said Nishino. “He has been injured recently but he contributes a lot to the team with his physicality and he has qualities as a striker. He contributes more than just hard running — he’s good at bringing the play together.
“Kagawa is in a delicate situation because he’s just come back from three months out injured, and I want to see what condition he’s in during this training camp. I’d like to see him get back to his best form. Honda has been playing in a different environment with his club in Central America and I’d like to check his performance levels as well.”
Nishino omitted Yuya Kubo — a key player under Halilhodzic — to allow him to play for club side Gent in the ongoing Belgian League playoffs, but indicated that the forward still has a chance of making the World Cup squad.
There was little such encouragement offered to fellow forward Shoya Nakajima, however, despite the 23-year-old making an impact in his international debut against Mali and Ukraine in March.
“Nakajima has achieved a lot in Portugal over the past year,” Nishino said of Nakajima, who moved from FC Tokyo to Portuguese team Portimonense last summer and scored 10 goals in 32 league and cup appearances this season.
“But we have more players who can play in his position than in any other area, and we have to think about the overall balance of the squad.”
Nishino also recalled Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama after a three-year absence from the national team, with Sanfrecce in red-hot form in the J. League with 12 wins from 14 games this season.
“Aoyama is a player who embodies everything that Sanfrecce have been doing this season,” Nishino said of the 32-year-old, who was a member of Japan’s squad for the 2014 World Cup. “He hasn’t been involved with the national team for a while but he has experience and he has achieved things in the past. There is no player in as good form as he is at the moment.”
Japan has been drawn in a first-round group at the World Cup with Colombia, Senegal and Poland. The team will travel to Europe to play friendlies against Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland, on June 8 and Paraguay in Innsbruck, Austria, on June 12 before setting up camp in Russia.
“At first my plan was to start thinking about my best team from this point on,” said Nishino. “I wanted to use the Ghana game to test that out. But the season in Europe has just ended and not all of the players are in their best shape, so I want to have a good look at everyone. I don’t have a picture of what the Colombia game will be like but we want to win it, and I will pick the best players to help us do that.”
Nishino also revealed Friday that two players from the 35-man list he submitted to FIFA — Gamba Osaka’s Yasuyuki Konno and Kawasaki Frontale’s Yu Kobayashi — have now been ruled out of World Cup contention through injury.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz); Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka); Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray); Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds); Maya Yoshida (Southampton); Hiroki Sakai (Marseille); Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg); Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers).
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt); Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima); Keisuke Honda (Pachuca); Takashi Inui (Eibar); Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund); Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka); Genki Haraguchi, Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf); Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe); Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale); Kento Misao (Kashima Antlers); Yosuke Ideguchi (Leonesa).
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester); Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen); Yoshinori Muto (Mainz); Takuma Asano (Stuttgart).