A win over a regional archrival. A double-digit thrashing of a World Cup qualifying opponent. Two strong outings against a potential medal contender at the Summer Games.
To say that the last week was a good one for followers of Japan’s men’s teams is somewhat of an understatement.
As the senior Samurai Blue rode nigh-unstoppable momentum to a 3-0 win over South Korea and a blistering 14-0 result against Mongolia, the under-24 men showcased their talents in a series split with their Argentine counterparts.
While friendlies and qualifiers are still a long way from success at the main events, fans can walk away from those four games carrying hope that the future is bright — even if it isn’t set in stone.
Fitting the pieces
Prior to last month, Japan’s last seven international fixtures had been played with “segregated” squads: An all-Europe Samurai Blue contested friendlies in October and November in the Netherlands and Austria, respectively, while a J. League-based squad finished second in the December 2019 EAFF E-1 Championship in Busan, South Korea.
March’s international break saw nine Europe-based players joining 14 J. Leaguers, giving head coach Hajime Moriyasu a chance to see how the two sides interacted on the pitch — even if they were tightly segregated everywhere else through strict countermeasures intended to prevent the risk of COVID-19 infections.
“The overseas and domestic players have slept on different floors, eaten meals in different rooms, traveled separately, and it’s been very stressful on them to deal with all of these restrictions while preparing to play,” Moriyasu said. “But the players haven’t complained and they trained well. They’ve shown the world that you can take preventive measures and keep playing.”
On the pitch, strong performances by Frankfurt midfielder Daichi Kamada, Genk midfielder Junya Ito, Stuttgart midfielder Wataru Endo and Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako showed that a new core is developing within the Samurai Blue — one that will hopefully be able to propel Japan to consecutive World Cup round-of-16 appearances for the first time after previously having escaped the group stage in 2002, 2010 and 2018.
But a bigger takeaway for Moriyasu may be the new options he was able to evaluate during the break, particularly among the large crop of J. League players who finally got their chance to suit up in the team’s trademark blue kit.
“I think we’ve made progress this month,” Moriyasu said after Tuesday’s rout of Mongolia at Fukuda Denshi Arena in Chiba. “I’m happy that our new players came on and did well after we changed our system.
“Being able to bring in new players, introduce them to the team and give them experience has been a huge plus for us.”
Eight players earned their first senior cap this week, with Nagoya Grampus midfielder Sho Inagaki — himself a squad replacement for injured Cerezo Osaka midfielder Riki Harakawa — coming off the bench against Mongolia to score a superb brace.
“There were a lot of players on their first call-up and it felt very stiff at first, but as time went on we were able to communicate, things felt more natural and we were able to show off our strong points in training,” Inagaki said
“I don’t like to separate us between overseas and local players, but those of us who played (this week) are doing well in the J. League. I think we all demonstrated our qualities, and if we keep that up in the league I think we’ll have more opportunities for the national team.”
Kids find their footing
Of more immediate concern to Moriyasu will be the state of his under-24 team at the upcoming Tokyo Games. Here too he’ll be spoiled for choice after caretaker manager Akinobu Yokouchi’s squad stood tall against Argentina in a 1-0 defeat in Tokyo on March 26 before rolling to a 3-0 win on Monday in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture.
While the squad missed Bologna defender Takehiro Tomiyasu — who was instead called up to the Samurai Blue — and injured Arminia Bielefeld attacker Ritsu Doan, a number of their compatriots stepped up against their South American opponents. Getafe midfielder Takefusa Kubo, who has long been touted as the face of this generation, recorded two assists in the second game and was also a strong defensive contributor to preserve the clean sheet.
“There are people who say that defending is the best way to attack and I think today was the embodiment of that,” Kubo said on Tuesday. “By preventing our opponents from making good plays we were able to transition smoothly into offense.
“We were able to control the ball, and unlike in the first game we were able to stop their long balls and their build-up plays and that helped us attack.”
Sagan Tosu striker Daichi Hayashi, who replaced Doan in the squad, quickly inserted himself into the conversation regarding who should make Japan’s 18-player squad after scoring the team’s first goal on Tuesday.
“There was a great ball from Ayumu (Seko), and it’s the forward’s responsibility to finish the chance,” said Hayashi, whose combinations with Kubo could make him a key part of a Japan squad hoping to reach the podium for the first time since the 1968 Mexico City Games.
“I had the impression from watching his (highlights) that Hayashi is a goal-scorer,” Kubo said. “Playing with him today I definitely understood that, and individually he’s easy to work with. As a player he’s maturing and carrying out his tasks clearly. There aren’t many players whose intentions are so easily understood, so it’s been really easy to play with him.”
Ahead of planned friendlies for the Olympic side in June, attention will now shift to the team’s overage options. Osako, Endo and Sampdoria center back Maya Yoshida have been touted as potential options by local media, while Marseille right back Hiroki Sakai is another candidate whose physicality could make the difference in Tokyo.
Alternatively, Japan could choose to go without any overage players — as then-coach and current JFA technical director Yasuharu Sorimachi did for Beijing 2008.
“We have a lot of candidates and we’re not in position to name anyone specific,” Yokouchi said on Friday. “I’ll be discussing our options with Moriyasu and we’ll work on narrowing things down.”
Next up: Nadeshiko
It took the Samurai Blue over a year to return home, but Japan’s former world champion women’s team has waited even longer to play in front of local fans.
After last playing a home friendly on Nov. 11, 2018, in Tottori, Nadeshiko Japan will begin its Olympic preparations in earnest with an April 8 friendly against Paraguay in Sendai, followed by an April 11 clash with Panama in Tokyo.
Asako Takakura’s 25-player squad, which will see action for the first time since the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, will be missing Lyon defender Saki Kumagai due to quarantine restrictions in France.
But officials will still be able to get a look at six overseas-based players, including Aston Villa striker Mana Iwabuchi, AC Milan midfielder Yui Hasegawa, and Washington Spirit attacker Saori Takarada — who is in the process of converting to a more defensive role for Nadeshiko.
“She tried playing as a center back at our October training camp and has been very positive about it,” Takakura said of Takarada. “My hopes are that she’ll be able to think about defensive spacing while still showing the attacking-minded passing skills she’s developed as a forward.
“Every player has the power to attack and defend, I don’t even think we need to define them by position. What I ask of the players is that they be prepared to respond to whatever happens on the pitch.”
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