ABU DHABI - Despite the disappointment of a surprise 3-1 loss against Qatar in the Asian Cup final on Friday, Japan saw encouraging performances from several of its emerging players in the United Arab Emirates.
Manager Hajime Moriyasu, who took the reins following last summer’s World Cup, overlooked a number of seasoned internationals in picking a youthful squad that emphasized potential over experience.
While Japan failed to capture a record-extending fifth title in the final at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium, Moriyasu said the squad showed it had the ingredients for future success.
“There is no doubt, we have the base upon which we can build the team for the future,” the 50-year-old manager said. “We succeeded in building chemistry.”
Defensive players Takehiro Tomiyasu and Wataru Endo — part of Moriyasu’s infusion of new talent — staked irresistible claims to their respective starting positions at the month-long tournament.
Teammates at Japanese-owned Belgian first-division club Sint-Truiden, the two were integral to Japan’s unbeaten run to the final.
Tomiyasu’s size, athleticism and defensive instincts should make him one of Japan’s mainstay central defenders for years.
A strong dribbler capable of getting forward in attack, the 20-year-old seemingly possesses all the desired qualities for a modern center-back.
He showed his attacking capabilities in Japan’s 1-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia in the last 16, scoring the winner from a set-piece, while his confidence against high balls helped neutralize Iran’s offensive threat in the Samurai Blue’s 3-0 semifinal victory.
With midfield stopper Endo sidelined by a fever, Tomiyasu was deputized as a holder in Japan’s opener, a 3-2 win against Turkmenistan.
But Moriyasu returned the 188-cm youngster to his preferred center-back role the following match, retaining him alongside captain Maya Yoshida as a first-choice pairing for the remainder of the tournament.
The return of Endo — a member of the World Cup squad who did not see action in Russia — marked a defensive improvement by Japan, which kept a clean sheet each time the 25-year-old former Urawa Reds player started.
The Samurai Blue felt his absence through a thigh injury in the final, with the second of Qatar’s two opening-half goals coming after Japan failed to slow the Arabian side’s movement through the center.
On the attacking side, winger Ritsu Doan and forward Takumi Minamino gave mixed performances, but showed enough to vindicate Moriyasu’s decision to build his new-look attack around the pair.
Doan, who plays for ailing Dutch top-flight side Groningen, continued his development with two goals at the tournament, but that was little consolation after a final in which he struggled.
“The result is all that mattered. I feel responsible. I came here to win, not for the experience or growth,” the 20-year-old said.
Minamino finally found the net in the tournament decider, after repeatedly threatening but failing to score in earlier matches.
His deftly taken goal, a close-range chip of the ‘keeper, looked to have sparked a Japanese comeback in the 69th minute of the final, but the momentum was snuffed out when Qatar took a 3-1 lead from the penalty spot.
The 24-year-old Salzburg attacker has now scored five goals, with two assists, in his 11 internationals under Moriyasu.