Ahead of the East Asian Cup, I wrote a brief preview for The Japan News…
The East Asian Cup may not be the most prestigious of tournaments, but it provides a rare opportunity to test the mettle of fringe players in competitive action, and both Vahid Halilhodzic and Norio Sasaki have their red pens at the ready.
The four-team competition, which gets underway on Aug. 1 in Wuhan, China, falls outside of official FIFA international game dates, and so clubs are under no obligation to release their players.
That means that both the male and female Japan teams travelling to China are made up of solely domestic players, and their coaches are looking forward to seeing how those usually on the periphery cope in the heat of battle.
“First of all I want to discover players,” Samurai Blue coach Halilhodzic said when announcing his 23-man squad on Jul. 23. “I’m thinking that around half of the ‘A’ national team will be those who play domestically. I want to see who can play effectively looking ahead to the next training camp for the full national team.”
Sasaki – whose first choice squad finished as runners-up at the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada – is aiming to use the round robin tournament to audition the next generation of Nadeshiko players.
“I want them to challenge themselves at this competition showing a strong desire to be on the pitch for Nadeshiko Japan at the Rio Olympics,” he said at the squad announcement on Jul. 21. “If they can produce results and gain confidence here then they will be able to be involved in the qualification process for Rio.”
“Playing in China this time there will be a bit of a special environment,” Halilhodzic added. “They are away games and so it is vital to show a strong mentality.
“I want to use [the difficulty of the environment] and work on mental training. The three teams we play will all be desperate to beat us. I want to find players who are capable of matching that.”
The Bosnian is confident that he has made the best selections on that front.
“The players have incredibly high motivation. I spoke directly with [Kosuke] Ota and Gaku [Shibasaki] on the phone and they both said, ‘even though I’m carrying an injury I want to go and play for Japan.’ Having players with that spirit is important.”
Sasaki is also keen to gauge the mental strength of those less accustomed to competitive international soccer, and hopes they can apply pressure to the regular members of the squad not selected.
“It will be a very difficult environment – it will be hot, and it will be a great experience for this age group to show their individual strengths and team strength, as well as their teamwork,” the 57-year-old said.
“It is good if [their omission] acts as a stimulus to the players not chosen, but if the talented players in this generation don’t seize this opportunity and say, ‘I’m going to the Rio Olympics,’ then it won’t become a stimulus to those not involved.”
Halilhodzic envisions plenty of his players having the opportunity to show what they are capable of owing to the quick turnaround between matches.
“We have to adapt to the conditions, and because we play three games in such a short space of time I will have to use as many players as possible,” he said.
“Modern soccer is becoming incredibly fast. Duels are becoming incredibly aggressive. Teams are becoming incredibly organized and the team that concentrates and adapts wins.
“Teams that win have a certain something, and individual players can also make the difference – particularly when it comes to scoring goals. We have to find players capable of making the difference too.”
The men get their campaign underway against North Korea on Aug. 2, before taking on South Korea on Aug. 5, and concluding against host China on Aug. 9. For the women, North Korea are first on Aug. 1, South Korea next on Aug. 4, and China last up on Aug. 8.