YOKOHAMA – National team manager Akira Nishino expects to agonize over his World Cup selections right up until he names his 23-man squad on Thursday but hopes Wednesday’s friendly match against Ghana will provide some answers.
“I don’t need to tell the players that they are fighting for their survival,” Nishino told reporters at Nissan Stadium on Tuesday, one day before he takes charge of the team for the first time after replacing fired predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic last month.
“There are more than 23 players here and I can only include a set number of them on the list. I have to think about the balance. I’ve been thinking about how to get the players into their best condition, and we will see what happens in tomorrow’s game. After that, we have to expect that there might be some injuries. I think the questions will continue.”
Nishino has chosen a 27-man squad to face Ghana — since reduced to 26 following the withdrawal of injured midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama — which he will trim to 23 on Thursday to head into the June 14-July 15 World Cup in Russia, where Japan will face Colombia, Senegal and Poland in the first round.
Nishino has had less than two weeks to work with his players following his sudden elevation to the manager’s job, but the 63-year-old is satisfied by what he has seen so far.
“There has been a response from the players,” he said. “They have potential and quality, so if they can bring that out of themselves, we can change the situation. I’ve felt the team grow a lot in just the few days that we’ve been together. It’s a good atmosphere. It’s difficult to transform a team just like that but I have felt a change.”
Several players joined the training camp short of full match fitness, having spent large chunks of the club season on the sidelines through either injury or poor form.
“It’s been a long camp and I’ve been able to concentrate every day,” said midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who returned to action with Borussia Dortmund earlier this month after missing three months through injury.
“Everything will be decided the day after the game but all the players are fully focused on the game itself. We’re prepared for any situation in the match and we want to win even though it’s only a friendly, because then we can carry that form onward. We’ll be trying out different things and we need to capitalize on the good things that come out of the game.”
Nishino intends to try out a three-man defense in an attempt to increase the team’s options for the World Cup, claiming that a four-man defense has “become ingrained in the players — for better or for worse.”
“We won’t know what it’s like unless we try it,” said defender Maya Yoshida. “It’s a different position to what I’m used to playing. We’ve had some good practices but a game is different, so tomorrow will be an important chance to try it out for real.
“Just because the manager has changed, that doesn’t mean that everything changes with it. We will continue doing the things we do well. Whether that was under Halilhodzic or (former manager Javier) Aguirre or (Alberto) Zaccheroni, the Japan national team has grown through all the things we have learned from them. We’re looking forward with optimism.”
Japan will warm up for the World Cup by playing Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland, on June 8 and Paraguay in Innsbruck, Austria, on June 12. Nishino’s team opens its World Cup campaign against Colombia in Saransk on June 19 before taking on Senegal in Yekaterinburg on June 24 and Poland in Volgograd on June 28.
Ghana, which is ranked No. 50 in the world, did not qualify for the World Cup. Midfielder Thomas Partey believes the Black Stars will provide a useful dress rehearsal for Japan’s game against West African neighbor Senegal.
“I think there is no difference between Senegal and Ghana,” said Atletico Madrid midfielder Partey. “The only difference is that now they have a lot of mature players, which we don’t have tomorrow because we have new guys. I think that’s the only difference between playing Ghana tomorrow and facing Senegal at the World Cup.”