Soccer

Japan must step up after shaky group stage

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

No more friendlies. No more minnows. No more excuses. Warmups are over for the Samurai Blue.

The four-time Asian champions will begin the final march toward a fifth continental title on Monday when they face Saudi Arabia in the 2019 Asian Cup’s Round of 16.

Should Japan win — a result many neutral observers believe is a foregone conclusion — it will face the winner of Sunday’s Jordan-Vietnam match in the quarterfinals.

Next in line in the semifinals would most likely be Iran, FIFA’s top-ranked Asian nation and arguably the strongest squad in the tournament. Beyond that — if Japan supporters are allowed to dream so far ahead to the final — might wait archrival South Korea, Australia or perhaps hosts United Arab Emirates.

Had the Samurai Blue drawn or lost Thursday’s match against Uzbekistan, they could have potentially faced Australia, UAE, South Korea, and then Iran in the final.

In terms of difficulty it would easily have matched Japan’s run to the 2011 title under then-head coach (and current UAE boss) Alberto Zaccheroni — a 3-2 thriller over host Qatar, a shootout win against South Korea, and that unforgettable 1-0 extra time victory over the Socceroos in Doha.

In terms of media exposure, it would have brought a much-needed dose of hype to a squad with no established stars, still at the start of a long-awaited generational transition. With yokozuna Kisenosato’s retirement from sumo and the progress of Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori at the Australian Open dominating headlines, a marquee rivalry would have drawn the national spotlight.

And in terms of on-the-pitch performance, that scenario might have given us a real look at what the team’s potential could be under head coach Hajime Moriyasu.

The early impressions offered by Japan in the group stage certainly haven’t been the strongest. The team needed to fight back from a deficit against plucky Turkmenistan, narrowly eking out a 3-2 victory in spite of a languid defense and an incredibly inconsistent outing from goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.

Against Oman, Genki Haraguchi’s penalty kick from the spot was just good enough for a 1-0 win, but Japan was lucky not to drop points in light of the non-call against Yuto Nagatomo’s “hand of God” in its own area.

It was not until the reserves engineered a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Uzbekistan on Thursday, bolstered by Yoshinori Muto’s first senior international goal in over three years, that Japan started to look confident.

But as we saw in Australia 2015, when Javier Aguirre’s men recorded decent — but not overwhelming — wins over Palestine, Iraq and Jordan in Group D before falling to UAE in penalties, confidence is deceptive.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Japan will not face its biggest rivals early in the knockout stage. This is hardly the country’s strongest squad, nor is it at full strength.

Defender Gen Shoji chose to spend the month settling in at Toulouse, and a number of players — goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, midfielder Wataru Endo and striker Yuya Osako among them — have dealt with injuries or illness at some point in January.

Without dynamic attacker Shoya Nakajima, much of the attacking burden has been placed on Ritsu Doan and Takumi Minamino. Both have shown potential, but fans were denied a chance to see the trio who dominated against Uruguay last October test their competitive mettle.

Then again, it seems like few fans are paying attention to begin with. Television ratings in the Kanto region for this year’s group stage opener averaged just 12 percent, down from 16 in 2015 and 17.2 in 2011.

Those numbers are not exactly surprising, with stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa absent from the Asian Cup for the first time since 2007. Japan should draw more viewers in June, when Moriyasu expects to take a full-strength squad — likely a combination of veteran internationals and promising Olympic hopefuls — to Brazil for the Copa America.

Before that, however, there is the matter of Saudi Arabia and more challenging AFC opponents waiting in the wings.

Japan’s path to that fifth Asian Cup title may not be as glamorous as it could be, but the potential glory awaiting Moriyasu and company at the competition’s conclusion remains unchanged.

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