Japan’s men’s and women’s teams get their Olympic campaigns underway this week. Expectations for the sides differ slightly, but both teams’ success is dependent upon key individuals…
Nadeshiko Japan and Japan Under-23s are heading into the London Olympics – which start this week – with fans anticipating slightly different outcomes for each.
The women, as world champions, were already being spoken about as challengers for the gold medal before their assured 3-0 victory over Australia at Tokyo National Stadium a couple of weeks ago.
The recent 4-1 defeat to the U.S. had raised a few questions, but with Norio Sasaki putting out his strongest XI against the Matildas the side looked to be approaching its best form again at just the right time.
The men, on the other hand, are heading to the UK more in hope than expectation.
That is not to say they are a bad side – far from it, in fact, with several hugely talented players in the squad – but the relative strength of the men’s competition means it would take a spectacular effort to bring a medal back to Japan in August.
As well as being in Group D with a Spain side boasting three players fresh from the country’s Euro 2012 success, Takashi Sekizuka’s players will also likely have to get past a Brazilian team featuring Neymar, Ganso and Pato if they want to even make it as far as the medal matches.
On top of that they will also need to overcome the problem which refuses to go away – a lack of killer instinct in front of goal.
In their send-off against New Zealand they dominated possession and made several great chances, but ended up drawing the game because of repetitive play and their poor finishing.
“We started well for the first 20 minutes and moved very well,” Sekizuka said after the match. “However, the New Zealand team started to get used to our rhythm and we had difficulty scoring.
“There are midfielders with good talent so I’d like those members to change the game.”
For me the key player for the side is not a midfielder, however, but the striker Kensuke Nagai.
The Nagoya Grampus frontman is blessed with absolutely astounding pace, and he has recently started to complement that with an increasingly consistent end product.
He likes to come deep to collect the ball and, having drawn the opposing defenders out, challenge them to a foot race – and there are very few players who can beat him for speed.
It is vital, though, that Nagai’s teammates are in tune with him if they are to make the most out of his abilities.
“This kind of transition to change the flow of the game is something that’s very important,” Sekizuka said of adding more variety to the team’s play.
“This is something that I want all of the players to be aware of. We have to be in control of the game […] and change the tempo and rhythm.
“I want Nagai and [Hiroshi] Kiyotake to move around in the front line. I want them to be smooth I don’t want them to play in a fixed position but to use their own judgement.”
Someone whose judgment can be trusted for the Nadeshiko is captain Aya Miyama, who is gradually inheriting Homare Sawa’s mantle as the pivot of them team.
Sasaki said as much after the Australia game, insisting that the long-term evolution of the team is vital.
“Miyama is the core,” he said. “Sawa used to be, but since the World Cup we are trying to shift to the younger generation.
“If we can do well now then we can also get a good result at the next World Cup.”
The Okayama Yunogo Belle midfielder is an exceptionally talented individual, who reads the game fantastically.
She left a very positive impression on the Australia coach Tim Sermanni, who was full of praise after his side’s defeat.
“She’s first class,” he gushed. “Very clever with a great game-sense.
“She has the ability to see things before other players. She’s not physically fantastic but finds space and time very well and is a great passer. That’s very important.”
It is indeed, but while Nadeshiko Japan know they can bide their time in games with many chances to strike the killer blow likely, the men may need a slightly more direct approach if they are to progress.