Soccer

Samurai Blue optimistic for 2019

Kyodo

Following a turbulent year that brought joy and heartbreak, the Japan men’s national team will head to the Asian Cup full of optimism, with a new core of emerging players.

The Samurai Blue will kick off the Jan. 5 to Feb. 1 tournament in the United Arab Emirates as one of the favorites following a vastly more positive buildup than this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

The team is undefeated in five matches under new manager Hajime Moriyasu, an assistant to predecessor Akira Nishino in Russia, and has played an engaging brand of soccer centered on an attacking trio left out of the World Cup squad.

Top performers for their respective clubs, Portimonense playmaker Shoya Nakajima, Salzburg attacker Takumi Minamino and Groningen midfielder Ritsu Doan gave the most tantalizing show of their potential so far in a 4-3 win over Uruguay at Saitama Stadium in October.

Blending with more experienced squad members including Marseille wing-back Hiroki Sakai and Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako, the three helped the Samurai Blue dominate the South Americans for much of the international friendly.

Defensive stalwart Maya Yoshida called the match — his first as captain — “a historic victory.”

The high spirits surrounding the squad are in marked contrast to the atmosphere ahead of the World Cup, when Japan hit a slump after securing qualification.

With manager Vahid Halilhodzic having fallen out with a number of senior players, the Japan Football Association took the surprising step of firing the Bosnian, who had previously led Algeria to the World Cup round of 16.

Halilhodzic had tried unsuccessfully to shake up the old order centered on veterans Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa, but with the situation at an impasse, the JFA sided with the players.

With former JFA technical director Nishino filling the breach, Japan’s oldest-ever World Cup squad was given long odds of advancing beyond a tough Group H containing Colombia, Senegal and Poland.

But the JFA’s decision to replace Halilhodzic was soon vindicated when Japan opened the tournament with a 2-1 victory over 10-man Colombia in Saransk, with Kagawa and Honda making crucial contributions.

The Samurai Blue eventually advanced from the group following a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Senegal and an anticlimactic 1-0 loss to Poland.

Honda once again played a critical role as he scored the equalizer off the bench against Senegal, while the relatively unheralded Takashi Inui seized his moment on the biggest stage with Japan’s opening goal against the Africans.

Japan earned criticism for settling for the loss against the already-eliminated Poles, knowing the 1-0 score would be good enough to advance ahead of Senegal — with which it shared identical points, goal difference, and total goals — by virtue of having fewer bookings in the group stage.

But any lingering distaste about the manner in which Japan became the first team in World Cup history to advance on the so-called “fair play tiebreaker” was washed away in a thrilling round-of-16 battle with Belgium.

After startling the world No. 3 (now No. 1) side by taking a 2-0 lead through Genki Haraguchi and Inui early in the second half at Rostov Arena, Japan was eventually beaten 3-2 when substitute Nacer Chadli scored a stunning last-gasp winner for Belgium, which went on to reach the semifinals.

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