The squad Japan takes to Korea in a few weeks for the East Asian Cup will look very different to usual. Perhaps something like this…?
After the rather anticlimactic Confederations Cup campaign – which aside from the few highlights in the Italy match did not go according to plan (“People don’t expect much of us, but I’m going there to win it”, Keisuke Honda had declared ahead of Japan’s arrival in Brazil) – Samurai Blue fans now have the intriguing prospect of the East Asian Cup on the horizon.
At the time of writing Alberto Zaccheroni had not made it entirely clear what his selection policy would be, although he had suggested it would be a wholly different squad to that we are used to seeing, with European-based players and regulars from the Confeds omitted.
Taking that as my guide I have drawn up a 23-man list of J.League-based players that I would take to Korea if I was the man tasked with picking up the pieces from the last three defeats. Here it is:
Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Shusaku Nishikawa, Takenori Sugeno
Defenders: Yuhei Tokunaga, Tomoaki Makino, Kyohei Noborizato, Yuichi Komano, Daiki Iwamasa, Daisuke Nasu, Hiroki Mizumoto
Midfielders: Keita Suzuki, Toshihiro Aoyama, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gaku Shibasaki, Hiroki Yamada, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani
Forwards: Yohei Toyoda, Masato Kudo, Hisato Sato, Yuya Osako, Shinzo Koroki, Yoshito Okubo
The two main topics of discussion have been which young players Zac should give chances to, and which veterans (if any) he should bring back into the fold.
On the young-guns front I don’t really think my selection involves many shocks – except perhaps Noborizato, who I’ve been impressed with when I’ve seen him for Frontale this year. Yamaguchi, Shibasaki, Saito, Kakitani and Osako have all been touted as potential national teamers for a while now, and with each of them continuing to impress for their respective J.League clubs it wouldn’t be a surprise if most – if not all – of them are making the short trip to Seoul in a couple of weeks.
My decision to leave out Takahiro Ogihara is perhaps a little unexpected, with he and Yamaguchi usually referred to as a pair, but the 21-year-old looked a little nervous at last year’s Olympics and I feel that, on current form, there are other players in his position who deserve the chance to show what they can do.
Debate about whether or not to recall Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio – who were outstanding at the heart of defence in South Africa in 2010 – has also raged, and while they have every right to feel more than a little aggrieved by the way they were so promptly cast aside by Zaccheroni after he assumed the reins, I wouldn’t bring them back.
Both players were must-picks in their prime but for me they peaked at the last World Cup and if they were reintroduced now it would probably not end well for anyone involved. Neither are blessed with anything approaching pace, their decision-making is not what it was, and while they can get away with their increasingly regular lapses in concentration in the J.League they would almost certainly become liabilities at international level.
Of course, some experience is surely needed and Zac could do worse than slotting Keita Suzuki into one of the deep-lying midfield roles. It took me a while to fully appreciate the Reds veteran, but after being advised to take a closer look by a colleague earlier in the season his contribution is outstanding. He sets the pace of the team, and the number of times he nips opponents’ attacks in the bud with an impeccably-timed interception is remarkable. Having him alongside Yamaguchi with Shibasaki sat just in front in the No.10 role could work very well.
His Reds teammate Nasu also deserves serious consideration as a solid presence when defending and attacking set-pieces – still a major flaw of Zac Japan – and Yoshito Okubo has been in fine form since joining Kawasaki, and his aggressive, tenacious and committed style sets him out as a rather unique player amongst his contemporaries.
All six strikers I’ve named are well aware of where the goal is, and all-in-all I’d opt for an experienced defensive line-up and slightly more experimental attacking combination. My starting XI would look something like this:
(4-2-3-1 (R-L)) Gonda; Tokunaga, Mizumoto, Nasu, Komano; Keita, Yamaguchi; Kudo, Shibasaki, Kakitani; Sato
What do you think?