Ryukyu looking good

They stormed to the J3 title last year, and while wins have proven a little hard to come by of late FC Ryukyu look to have all the ingredients needed to make an impact in the second tier… (日本語版)

Football Channel 18th April, 2019

FC Ryukyu burst out of the traps at the start of this season, their first in J2, scoring 11 goals as they won their first four games against established sides Avispa Fukuoka, Omiya Ardija, Ehime FC, and Tokushima Vortis.

The 2-1 triumph at home to Vortis on 16 March was the last time they managed to take all three points from a game, though, and only four more have been added from their last handful of games.

Of course, points on the board don’t always tell the full story, and the manner in which the side have been playing has been a breath of fresh air for the second tier, with Yasuhiro Higuchi’s players proactive and always looking to build attacks on the deck with intent.

“Our style of football is to keep the ball and look to create scoring chances, and we want to keep playing without changing that,” captain Kazumasa Uesato said after the 1-1 draw away to Tokyo Verdy on 13 April. “I think the fact we were able to keep going in that way right until the end here is a plus for the team.

“Our strength is more at playing actively and causing things to occur as we go rather than thinking and then doing. I’m pleased that aspect came out in today’s game.”

As well as playing attractive football last year’s J3 champions have also exhibited a real resilience, with each of their last three points being secured with late goals – including Uesato’s sensational 95th-minute equaliser against Verdy.

The previous week Satoki Uejo was the hero as he found the net in the 82nd minute to seal another 1-1 draw at home to Kashiwa Reysol, while Koji Suzuki was the man doing the business at the death on 30 March as he struck in the 89th minute to make sure of a 2-2 against Renofa Yamaguchi.

What is more impressive than that never-say-die spirit, however, is the manner in which the team have resisted the temptation to sacrifice their principles as they search for a way back into games, sticking to their possession-based style and ultimately being rewarded.

Although Verdy edged possession in the first half (52 percent to 48), for instance, Ryukyu turned things around after the break and went on to have 54 percent over the 90 minutes as a whole, also notching up almost 200 more passes than the hosts (643 to 474). Uezato made the headlines for his dramatic late goal, but his performance was about far more than that and the 33-year-old was a composed presence in the middle of the park throughout, conducting things calmly and always with his head up surveying the options available to him.

Football Channel, Thursday 18th April 2019

The plan from the outset was clearly to work the ball into the final third and then pick up the pace and intent once there, with the supporting strikers in behind Suzuki always looking to jink their way beyond their markers or combine with quick one-twos to make space in dangerous areas. The one- and two-touch football continued even as the clock ticked down with Ryukyu trailing, and Yoshio Koizumi and Suzuki both sent wonderful chances off target in injury time before Uesato finally lashed the ball beyond Naoto Kamifukumoto in the Verdy goal.

Even then the visitors refused to settle, and the final three minutes of the match were end to end as Verdy looked to reclaim the lead and Ryukyu went for the jugular.

“Since we started the season with four straight wins we haven’t been able to pick up three points, and although today we again scored right at the end to earn a draw more so than feeling delighted with that there is disappointment that we didn’t win the game,” Higuchi said.

“Several times we managed to get through the opponent’s block and were in decent positions, but then the accuracy of our last ball wasn’t quite there or our play was a little sloppy.”

Even so, the former Yokohama F.Marinos boss was satisfied with his players’ dedication to their proactive approach.

“There haven’t been any games where we’ve been dominated by the opponent, it’s been more the case that we’ve had a lot of difficult games in which we’ve conceded while looking to make chances ourselves,” he said. “What I think has led to us getting the goals back right at the end of games is that the players always have the attitude of trying to attack.”

Uesato was similarly impressed with his team’s tenacity, and is sure the events of recent games will contribute to the team’s growth.

“For the young players, we won (at the start of the season) and then built up some momentum, but doing this – conceding and then coming back – also builds experience. Everyone is playing with the thought that we can get a goal at some point, and everyone is thinking that if we are able to score several goals we will be able to pick up wins.”

A team that never thinks it’s beaten is a tough proposition for any opponent, and if Ryukyu stick to their guns then there can be no doubt that their winning ways will return sooner rather than later.


Full back to the future

The recent Kirin Cup provided Hajime Moriyasu with another chance to try out some new players, and his full back selections offered the team some interesting options in the absence of regular starters Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo… (日本語版)

Football Channel 30th March, 2019

Japan’s two friendlies last week against Colombia and Bolivia offered up fairly standard Kirin Cup action, with excitement at a premium, none of the fringe players suggesting they are yet ready to challenge for starts, and Shoya Nakajima again demonstrating that he is the man Hajime Moriyasu needs to build his team around.

One interesting aspect to the Bolivia game at Noevir Stadium on Tuesday, however, was provided by Moriyasu’s starting full-backs, with Koki Anzai and Daigo Nishi representing very different additions to the team.

At 23, Anzai falls into the one-for-the-future category, and as an attack-minded player a potential successor to Yuto Nagatomo if the Galatasaray man ever begins to show any signs of age. Nishi, meanwhile, was back in the national team fold for the first time in almost eight years, yet looked like he had only been away for eight weeks.     

“It was a really stimulating 10 days, and it’s been made clear what I need to have,” Anzai said of his first call-up to the full national team. “In the second half I managed to make a few chances but in the end the accuracy wasn’t quite there, and if I am able to keep my place in this team I fully realise I have to do even more.”

With one of the mainstays of the past decade occupying the berth on the left of defence Anzai, who was playing J2 football with Tokyo Verdy until moving to Kashima Antlers last year, knows he needs to improve in several areas if he is to provide a concerted challenge for starts.

“I have to keep going to try and surpass Nagatomo, and today I played aggressively. If my last ball had been better then I feel I would have left a better impression though, so that leaves a little feeling of regret.

“I’ve had a good year and been able to get into the national team, and what happens next is up to me. There are many things I need to do while making sure I don’t waste a single day. I want to go higher.”

While Anzai was feeling introspective and processing the things he had learned after gaining his first taste of full international football, his former Kashima teammate Nishi, now of Vissel Kobe, was insisting he hadn’t really given the circumstances of his return too much thought – it had been 2,855 days since his last, and only other, appearance in the blue shirt – and was characteristically taking it in his stride.

Football Channel 30th March 2019

“I was able to play as I always do,” Nishi said. “The best thing was being able to deliver a win. The opponent really sat deep and defended and although it seemed like there were times we were going to get frustrated we persevered and built up with passes, and by doing that I think we ultimately wore the opponent down and tired them out.”

Most 31-year-olds with one previous cap would consider the odds against them making an impact in the international game but confidence in his own ability isn’t something Nishi lacks, and having played a key role in helping Kashima to glory domestically and further afield – taking Real Madrid to extra time in the final of the 2016 Club World Cup and winning last year’s Asian Champions League – few could argue with his credentials.

“There aren’t many players of my type,” he shrugged when asked if he felt he had a chance of making the cut for the Copa America in June. Rather than any concerns on that front, in fact, it was instead the possibility of his club refusing to let him go if Moriyasu, who has long been an admirer, did decide to call him up.

“I’ll have to ask the team to let me go, as there will still be J.League games,” he said with a grin. “Of course I’ve only just transferred to Kobe though, so I want to play there as well. I want to do both.”

Indeed, despite leaving Japan’s most successful club ahead of this season Nishi is relishing the change of scenery, in part crediting his new environment – and in particular new superstar teammates – as having enabled him to slot so seamlessly back into the national team set up.

“It’s wonderful, Andres Iniesta is incredible,” he said of the Barcelona legend he apparently now enjoys frequent football chats with in the bath. “Playing with him means that coming to play for Japan I don’t feel like anyone I play against is as skilful. In that way I think my sense of what’s ‘skilful’ has gone up, and that’s a big thing.”

That lack of fear could certainly prove a useful tool for Moriyasu to call upon if he is willing to look past Nishi’s advancing years for Brazil this summer – and possibly even the first round of World Cup qualifiers at the end of the year – while on the other flank Anzai’s eagerness offers plenty of promise as Moriyasu Japan moves into its next stage of development.


Frontale aiming for glory on all fronts

Two-time defending J.League champions Kawasaki Frontale are yet to win a competitive game in 2019, but Shogo Taniguchi and manager Toru Oniki insist the team know what is required of them as they target more glory at home and on the continent this year… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel 13th March, 2019

Kawasaki Frontale started the 2019 season positively by downing Urawa Reds 1-0 in the Super Cup on 16 February, but the two-time defending J1 champions have struggled to click into gear since, being held to three draws in a row in the league as well as slipping to a narrow 1-0 loss away to Shanghai SIPG in their ACL opener.

Results are of course not everything, and they more than matched Hulk and co. in China – clocking up 63.3% possession, making almost twice as many passes as the hosts (610 to 337), and registering 13 shots on goal (the same as SIPG) – but after failing to find the net they conceded an unfortunate late penalty which their former striker was only too happy to slam home in the 89th minute.

That setback didn’t appear to have affected them in the early exchanges of the Kanagawa Derby on Sunday, as they swept into the lead at Nissan Stadium inside four minutes courtesy of Leandro Damiao’s first J.League goal. Yokohama F.Marinos worked their way back into the game impressively though, Marcos Junior levelling things up midway through the first half and then Takahiro Ogihara doing the same again with the very last touch of the game after Damiao thought he had won it with his second in the 88th minute.

“Against Shanghai it was a bit of an accident, and you could say there wasn’t really much that could have been done about it, but today we lost our composure a little and gave away a corner,” Shogo Taniguchi said by way of explanation for Frontale’s two late concessions in consecutive games. “‘Make sure to mark at corners’ is of course easy to say, but as a team we need to think about how to defend to make sure we’re not in that position. The fact we didn’t have that – shall we call it control? – today is something we need to reflect upon.

“In the league there are more and more teams looking to prevent us from playing football the way we want to, and in these few games we feel the fact we haven’t been able to overcome that is why we haven’t managed to seize the wins. If we don’t raise our level then it isn’t going to be easy to win.”

Working out how to cope with the extra provisions made by opponents was always going to be something to contend with as Frontale set about winning the league for the third season in a row, and ahead of the campaign manager Toru Oniki made it clear that the team’s mental approach was going to be key.

“I think feeling is the most important thing,” he said at the J.League’s Kick-off Conference in February. “By any means necessary let’s first of all take that third title in a row. There’s absolutely no need to feel any pressure. A sense of responsibility is required but no pressure. On top of that, the stance to challenge – it will be a tough schedule and it’s important we don’t make excuses.”

Football Channel, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

The 44-year-old was also bullish with regards to matching Kashima Antlers’ three consecutive championships between 2007 and 2009.

“I think we have to look beyond that, to surpass Kashima. If we win three in a row that’s just the same (as Kashima). We have to look to go further, to think that we can create history, make new history. I think that’s important. I don’t really think I need to voice that too much though, the players are well aware, I think they share that feeling.”

Alongside the tantalising prospect of claiming more league titles is the desire to create another treble by following 2017 winners Urawa and holders Kashima as ACL champions.

“We want both, and there’s no kind of feeling of prioritising one over the other, truthfully,” Oniki said. “It’s not just a case of ‘wanting’ them both but ‘having to win’ them both.

“At this time we are the only team able to aim for three league titles in a row and so that is something we can’t let slip. Success in the league is a vital factor in order for the team, the club, to become stronger. On top of that, the ACL is a competition leads to many other things. For me I have a lot of bad memories from the past two years, and I think the same is true for the players. So with that in mind I don’t think I need to try and control the motivation, it’s already there.”

A lack of grit was identified as a cause of Frontale’s struggles in continental competition in the past couple of years, with the manager wanting his players to add some fortitude to their attractive play.

“Toughness, I think that was a factor. Toughness, feeling, battling. We played our football but it’s hard to progress without also having that toughness. This year I hope we can challenge while improving in that way.”

Taniguchi agrees that the team need to maintain their determination, while not wavering in their aim to play the game in the right way.

“Our style is to play passing football, to combine in the opponent’s half and aim for the goal, and even if we lose the ball in those areas to commit men forward and look to win it back quickly – we have always been doing that,” the 27-year-old said.

“Making those spells last as long as possible is our lifeline, lengthening them and slowly but surely tiring the opponent out before picking them off. So far this season we haven’t been able to do that in games yet, and that’s one thing we need to work on.”

The positive of such a busy schedule is of course that teams don’t have long to wait for the next game to put things right, and Wednesday’s clash at home to Sydney FC – who drew 0-0 at home to Ulsan in their Group H opener – provides Kawasaki with the perfect opportunity to get their push for silverware up and running.


Shonan style back in fashion

Shonan Bellmare picked up an impressive 2-0 win over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in this year’s first round of J1 matches, and the Hiratsuka side could be one to watch this season as they embark on the next stage in their evolution… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

This year is only the second time since relegation was introduced in the J. League that Shonan Bellmare are contesting back-to-back seasons in the top tier.

Having been relegated a record four times – and come perilously close to a fifth in 2018 – merely consolidating their place in the top flight would be an understandable target for the Kanagawa club this season.

Manager Cho Kwi-jae is not the kind of coach who is happy to just aim for survival, however, and the 50-year-old was heading into the latest campaign hoping to push on after last year’s 13th-place finish.

“Football is also risk,” he told me at the J.League’s Kick Off Conference on 14 February. “When we are attacking and lose the ball the other team can counter attack, but the culture for Bellmare has been attacking football for a long time, so we must be aiming to get higher.

“We had to get into the first division but we don’t have to only be reserved, we want to seek a result, we want to go higher, we want to be at a high level, we want to show our football. This passion is very important for us, that’s why we don’t have to think about ‘if we didn’t win we go to the second division’. We don’t have to think about that, that’s my opinion.

“We want to go higher. That’s not just results but also how we play. More evolution. That’s why our training has changed a little from last year. Pass with the brain, not only physically. When we have the ball we must combine more. When the other team has the ball we must be pressing, but we must be more adult, closer. I am really looking forward to this season, how we can play, what we can show.”

They certainly impressed in their opener last weekend, putting in an assured, mature, and attacking display as they downed last year’s surprise package Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 2-0 in Hiratsuka.

At times the contest resembled a basketball game, with the ball spending very little time in the middle third as each side instead took it in turns to stream from one end to the other with pacey dribbling and quick passing exchanges.

While both had opportunities to open the scoring in the first half Sapporo surrendered the initiative a little after the break, perhaps hoping they could draw Shonan out and then capitalise on a counter. Instead the hosts maintained their intensity and took charge of the game, while Sapporo struggled to find a way back and were punished accordingly by a brace from Kosuke Taketomi.

Football Channel, 27th Feb 2019

“At the start of the game the opponent had more of the ball and when we won possession we struggled to build attacks, but we rode that spell out and were able to make several chances on the counter in the first half,” Taketomi said post-match. “In the second half we wanted to attack more quickly and had confidence that we could outrun the opponent, which we wanted to capitalise upon.”

Even after Taketomi struck the opener in the 82nd minute – following in after some industrious work by Miki Yamane on the right hand side and prodding home a loose ball ahead of Gu Sung-yun – Shonan didn’t sit back, epitomising their coach’s ‘no fear’ approach.

“Until now after we’ve scored one goal there have been a lot of times when we’ve then been pressed back by the opponent and worked to ride it out and take the three points,” Yamane said. “Just doing that is not easy though, so we tried the best we could whenever the opponent committed men forward to then try and attack and get the extra goal. Doing that is something we want to focus on this year, and I’m pleased we did it today.”

Shonan didn’t sway from that proactive stance even after Ryogo Yamasaki missed a glorious one-on-one in the 87th minute, continuing to tear forward in numbers and getting the vital second goal three minutes later as Taketomi steered artfully home from 12 yards.

“It’s just the first day of the season and I think compared to other teams we can run an unbelievable amount,” Yamane added. “That’s also about using your head, and I don’t think there’s a team who can outdo us in that respect.”

The 25-year-old is of course right not to get carried away by a win in the first round of games, but there was a freshness and positivity to Shonan’s play which echoed the ethos that their coach demands.

“He tells us to put aside too many specific things and just be engrossed in playing football,” Taketomi said of Cho’s words of advice to the team. “The players have to become one, aim for the victory, and play with all we have. I think that’s the most important thing for Bellmare and it’s not acceptable for even one player to slack off. We have to work together, not be too preoccupied with the tactics, and as much as possible lose ourselves in the game.”

They did that to maximum effect against Sapporo, and if Bellmare can maintain the same levels of performance as the year progresses then Shonan style could be very much en vogue this season.


Thai-m to shine

The recruitment policies of J.League clubs have long been predictable and unadventurous, but thanks to Chanathip Songkrasin’s success in Sapporo last year teams are increasingly placing their trust in previously untapped talent from Southeast Asia… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Monday 17th February, 2019

Chanathip Songkrasin goes by the nickname ‘Messi Jay’ in his native Thailand, on account of the similarity in his play style to that of the Argentinian superstar.

The diminutive playmaker has certainly made a big impression since arriving in the J.League midway through the 2017 season, earning a growing number of fans for his quick feet and defence-splitting passes, and helping Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo soar up the table and almost into the ACL.

His coach, Mihailo Petrovic, however, had a comparison to a different Barcelona legend in mind when asked about Chanathip at the J.League’s recent Kick Off Conference.

“For me there are two Iniestas in the J.League,” he told me with that characteristic twinkle in his eye. “No.1 is of course Iniesta, but No.2 is Chana. For me he has the same presence.”

Petrovic has a reputation for being something of a talker, but even by his standards the glowing praise he heaped upon his No.18 spoke volumes for the esteem in which he holds the Thailand star.

“He will become an even better player,” the 61-year-old added when asked if he thought Chanathip may struggle under increased expectations after being voted into the J.League Best Eleven last year and helping Consadole to a record fourth place finish.

“I think he can play just like Iniesta. If he was at Barcelona maybe he could even score more goals than Iniesta did when he was performing so well there. I think maybe he has more scoring intuition than Iniesta.

“Chanathip is small physically, which in many ways could be seen as a disadvantage. But he is the kind of player who turns that into an advantage. He is nimble and agile, has a real ability to take care of the ball, great speed and intelligence, dribbling – in those respects he turns his disadvantages into advantages, which is his strength.”

Petrovic was also full of praise for the way Chanathip has worked to harness his natural ability and ensure it’s effective.

“He has always been a good player, but he used to be a good player who, when you looked closely, didn’t really leave results – in the half season before I came he didn’t score once or provide any assists,” he said.

“He gained real attention for his dribbling, but he would dribble towards the corner flag a lot. Now he’s playing more and more towards the goal, which led to him scoring a lot of goals and also providing more assists for his teammates. The fact he was playing in areas the opponents really didn’t want him enabled him to make great progress last season.”

That progress has prompted other J.League clubs to dip their toes into the water and offer opportunities to Thai players, with newly promoted Oita Trinita the latest to do so when they signed Chanathip’s international teammate Thitiphan Puangjan.

“Theerathon (Bunmathan), Teerasil (Dangda), and Chanathip did very well, which means many J.League teams now have an interest in Thai players,” the 25-year-old said. “That makes me very happy, and now I feel that if I am able to play this year and perform well then more Thai players will have opportunities to come and play in the J.League.”

Football Channel 22nd February 2019

Theerathon, now of Yokohama F.Marinos after spending last season on loan at Vissel Kobe, also referenced the fact that the J.League’s Thai cohort aren’t just playing to achieve results for themselves and their teams but also to create a positive impression of their nation’s football.

I’m representing my country so of course I feel a sense of pressure,” the 29-year-old said.

“I’m not just playing here as ‘Theerathon’ but instead as ‘Thai national team player Theerathon’, so I feel real pressure. But I want to keep inviting that pressure, knowing that the Thai people will feel ashamed if I don’t do well. That means I have to make sure I give my all, so in that sense I see it as a good pressure.”

Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou believes there is a wealth of untapped talent all around Asia, but feels too many clubs are set in their ways when it comes to recruitment.

As much as it’s about awareness it’s also people being prepared to be a little bit brave and doing things a little bit out of the norm,” the former Australia boss told me when asked why he thought clubs’ recruitment policies had taken so long to diversify.

“It’s so easy to go down a certain avenue, there’s guaranteed outcomes in many respects and those outcomes aren’t great sometimes, but people still go down the route of recruiting people form certain areas because that’s the way it’s always been done. You look at the way Chanathip played this past year in the J.League and I think there are others – that’s Thailand, but you watch the way Vietnam played at the Asian Cup – there’s some fantastic talent there.”

Postecoglou was also keen to praise the J.League for tweaking its registration rules to ensure players from countries such as Thailand don’t occupy one of the foreign player slots in squads – a policy which enabled Marinos to bring in an experienced international when last year’s standout performer Ryosuke Yamanaka left for Urawa Reds late in the transfer window.

“The talent’s always been there, it’s about giving the opportunities,” he said. “We’d used all of our foreigner spots, but because of the arrangement – and that’s a little bit of innovation there from the Japanese federation, to say ‘these emerging nations, maybe there’s some opportunities there both ways; to develop their football but also add something to ours’ – that was a fantastic way for us to bridge a hole that was going to be very difficult to fill.

“I think [Theerathon]’s the sort of side back that will suit our football. He’s attacking minded and technically good and I’m looking forward to working with him and think he’ll add something to our squad.”

This is increasingly the expectation of the Southeast Asian contingent arriving in Japan, with Chanathip leading the way and demonstrating that players from the region are more than capable of making a real impact on the pitch.


Moriyasu Japan mature and motivated

Hajime Moriyasu may have suffered his first defeat as Japan manager in the Asian Cup final last weekend, but his team showed plenty of promise throughout the competition, exhibiting maturity that belied their relative lack of experience on the international stage… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 6th February, 2019

The Asian Cup ultimately ended in disappointment for Japan, but the tournament as a whole threw up far more positives than negatives as Hajime Moriyasu started the process of reinvigorating the Samurai Blue ahead of the next World Cup cycle.

A sloppy start to gift Qatar a 2-0 first half lead in the final on 1 February left the side with too much to do in Abu Dhabi, but the manner in which they fought back in the second half was hugely encouraging, and in the end it took a VAR-awarded penalty to stifle their growing momentum and see Qatar crowned as champions with a 3-1 win.

Indeed, despite the constant chatter of ‘youth’ and ‘inexperience’ around the team, having spent a month covering the squad up close a real sense of maturity and self-belief emanated from the players and, as Maya Yoshida conceded after the final, it was perhaps overconfidence rather than a lack of it which cost the team a record fifth continental title.

“We didn’t start the game well,” he told the AFC. “More than anything I had the sense that his kind of thing could happen. We had played really well against Iran and then we watched the UAE-Qatar game and really felt as a team like we had a big chance. As captain I feel a sense of regret and unease about the fact I wasn’t able to make sure that as a team we kept that feeling in check.”

In the past it has been a lack of self-belief rather than a surplus of it that has held Japan back, and while of course regrettable that the side was caught napping as Qatar tore out of the traps and established control of the game with two phenomenal strikes from Almoez Ali and Abdelaziz Hatim, the players will have learned from the experience and hopefully be less likely to allow such complacency to creep into their play in the future.

Winning the title could very well have become the springboard from which this generation launched themselves to further glory, but defeat on the biggest stage can also serve as a motivator – especially in players with a true drive to taste success, of which there is an abundance in this squad.

“It’s a real honour to be able to go out there and fight wearing the flag of Japan,” Ritsu Doan, still only 20, said ahead of the quarter-final against Vietnam in Dubai. “But I also think it would be a waste if you don’t enjoy that feeling of tension, so I want to play the game by testing myself, enjoying seeing how far I can go with my ability within that tension.”

Such an appetite was prevalent throughout the squad as the tournament reached its climax, with Genki Haraguchi also expressing his desire to savour the biggest stage.

Football Channel 6th February 2019

“I think it’s better when there is pressure,” he said. “I have the mentality and experience to enjoy that pressure, and so I want it to keep building. I want to play while enjoying that pressure.”

Takumi Minamino was another to reference a lack of anxiety felt out on the pitch, and despite failing to find the net en route to the final the Red Bull Salzburg forward never let his head drop and clipped home Japan’s goal in the final with consummate ease. After also providing the assist for Yuya Osako’s opener in the 3-0 semi-final rout of Iran, the 24-year-old made it clear he relishes rather than dreads the weight of responsibility that comes with representing his country.

I play in Europe and have taken part in a lot of big games before now, and it has been my dream since I was a child to do battle for Japan so I don’t have any fear,” he said. “Before the game I had the feeling of wanting to go out there and enjoy it. That was the motivation I had.”

It is here that we gain a clearer idea as to why this ‘young’ and inexperienced’ team were able to defy the pre-tournament skeptics and progress all the way to the final. Of the ten outfielders that started against Qatar nine are with European clubs, with the odd one out being Tsukasa Shiotani – who plies his trade in the UAE and was filling in for the injured Wataru Endo, who plays in Belgium.

More and more Japanese players are testing themselves in the best leagues in the world, and doing so younger and younger. That exposure not only helps them develop into better players, become accustomed to playing in front of larger, more intimidating crowds, and eliminate the sense of inferiority when playing against opponents from overseas, but it also aids them in their growth off the pitch – which in turn helps them mature as people and become better suited at coping with high pressure situations.

“It meant I had to start from scratch in every respect,” Doan said when I asked how moving to Europe at 19 had affected him. “I think I’ve really changed as a person and a player. Of course there were difficult times too, but I think it is thanks to that that I am standing here now.”

The loss to Qatar has become another of those difficult times for Doan and his teammates, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear them citing it as one which spurred them on to victory further down the line as this team continues to develop over the coming months and years.


New Samurai Blue finding their feet

Japan are set for their toughest test yet under Hajime Moriyasu as they take on Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup Round of 16, but things are progressing impressively under the former Sanfrecce Hiroshima boss… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Monday 21st January, 2019

With the group stage of the Asian Cup successfully negotiated, Hajime Moriyasu remains unbeaten in eight games as Japan manager and looks increasingly comfortable at the helm of the Samurai Blue.

Having picked a largely inexperienced squad for the continental showpiece in the United Arab Emirates the 50-year-old made it clear he is intent on carrying out the generation change his squad selections for the late 2018 friendlies suggested.

What the first three games in the Emirates have shown, however, is that he is not implementing that shift at the expense of challenging for titles now.

This year the Asian Cup has been expanded to 24 teams, meaning there was never any doubt that Japan would progress to the Round of 16, but despite conceding first in two of their three group games the side has shown good resolve and impressive strength in depth to advance to Monday’s clash against Saudi Arabia.

Every player except the injured Masaaki Higashiguchi has played so far, and the team has picked up nine points from nine without really moving into anything above second gear.

There have undoubtedly been some issues – chiefly a lack of decisive finishing and a susceptibility to quick counter attacks – but having not played any warm-up matches ahead of the tournament and only arrived in the UAE six days before their opener against Turkmenistan on 9 January the team was always going to need a little time to adjust to the Middle East.

The Turkmenistan game, for instance, was played in incredible heat, and it was hardly surprising that players travelling from the winter in Japan or Europe found adapting to the 30-plus degrees of the Abu Dhabi afternoon a little tricky.

Yuto Nagatomo, the most experienced player in the squad, demonstrated just what he can still bring to the national team fold after that game, telling the-AFC.com that he had made sure to speak to his teammates at half-time with Japan surprisingly trailing 1-0.

“We’d conceded one goal but there was no need to get nervous,” the Galatasary star said. “I just told them to be positive, that we had 45 minutes and could come from behind so there was no problem.”

Football Channel, 21st Jan 2019

The Oman game four days later was negotiated a little more smoothly – while again being far from spectacular – although Takumi Minamino’s failure to get on the scoresheet despite having a number of wonderful chances was a little concerning, and he can hopefully get back to the lethal form he showed at the end of last year soon.

The 1-0 win delivered by Genki Haraguchi’s penalty still ensured progression from the group stage after just two matches, and so the ‘B-Team’ was then given a run-out against Uzbekistan on 17 January – really impressing with some slick combinations and certainly not looking like a set of players not used to playing together.

That reflects very well on the job that Moriyasu is doing and suggests not only that he has plenty of options to come in if and when injuries and suspensions occur later in the competition, but also that he is successfully conveying the style of play he wants to the squad as a whole, rather than relying on a select few players to deliver for him.

Yoshinori Muto touched upon that fact after his header helped Japan to the 2-1 win-from-behind, noting how the back-up players had shown they could deliver when called upon.

“I think that depth is going to become vital,” the Newcastle United man said. “Today with the ‘sub players’ we gained a good result and secured first place, which is really important.”

Improvement, of course, will be needed if the team is to make a real challenge of claiming its fifth continental crown, but while Saudi Arabia will present Japan with their sternest test yet Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side showed in their 2-0 defeat to Qatar on 17 January that they are far from invincible.

If the defence can keep its shape and prevent the Saudi forwards from getting in behind then Japan’s front line – fully refreshed after being given the day off against Uzbekistan – should have more than enough to cause problems of their own going in the other direction, and the key will be whether they can convert their chances when they come.

Overall the signs are positive though, and with confidence rising in the camp there is plenty to look forward to from this group of players.

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