ABU DHABI – Japan captain Maya Yoshida has called on his side to cope with pressure to perform at the Asian Cup as it looks to make up for its flop four years ago.
The Southampton defender admitted on Tuesday that several of the Japan team were still smarting from their shock penalty shootout loss to United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals in 2015 in Australia.
“That was a huge disappointment but this is a new team with a new manager,” Yoshida told reporters before the Samurai Blue’s opening Group F game against Turkmenistan.
“After the World Cup last year, (the) expectation is really high,” he added, pointing to Japan’s surprise run to the last 16 in Russia, where only a remarkable comeback by Belgium from two goals down prevented it from reaching the quarterfinals.
“But unlike the World Cup the expectation on Japan is different at an Asian Cup, where we are expected to win. That brings its own pressure obviously and we need to be able to cope with that and not freeze up.”
Japan captured the last of its record four Asian Cups in 2011, but coach Hajime Moriyasu has brought a new-look team to this year’s tournament, leaving out the likes of Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa and Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki.
Unbeaten in five matches under Moriyasu, the Japanese will rely instead on the lightning-quick attacking trio of Takumi Minamino, Shoya Nakajima and Ritsu Doan.
“We’ve brought in some fresh blood since the World Cup but we have a nice mix of youth and experience,” insisted Moriyasu.
“It’s a chance for the young players to forge their own paths as Japan internationals.”
Japan will expect to easily advance from a group also including Uzbekistan and Oman, but the Asian Cup has already thrown up its share of upsets, with holders Australia stunned 1-0 by Jordan in their opening game.
“Australia got beaten, Thailand lost to India and South Korea struggled to win their first game so the first game is hugely important for us,” said Yoshida.
“The first order of business will be to make sure we get out of our group. We have to grow into the tournament step by step.
“The new players have a responsibility to build on what previous Japan teams have done and fight with pride to add a new chapter in our history. It’s a big tournament for us.”
South Korea, which will be boosted by the arrival of Tottenham forward Son Heung-min after its second game, and Iran — a 5-0 winner over Yemen on Monday — are the favorites to lift Asian soccer’s most coveted trophy.
And Moriyasu is under no illusions as to the size of the task in the United Arab Emirates.
“There won’t be any easy games out here,” he said. “We know every opponent will be tough and deserve our utmost respect. We need to be firing at 100 percent if we want to progress.”