Archive for January 26th, 2022


Centre(back) of attention

Japan will be without the ever-dependable Maya Yoshida for this week’s critical World Cup qualifiers against China and Saudi Arabia, and the captain leaves huge boots to fill at the heart of the Samurai Blue defence… (日本語版)

There weren’t too many surprises when Japan manager Haijme Moriyasu announced his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers at the weekend, and with the J.League in-between seasons and injuries ruling out the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi and Kaoru Mitoma the Samurai Blue boss pretty much selected the attacking options he has available to him.

The inclusion of Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo – both of whom were absent with fitness concerns for the team’s most recent games, the former restricted to the bench and the latter ruled out completely – brings some much-needed creativity and guile in the final third of the pitch, while Daizen Maeda’s selection offers a glimmer of pace and goalscoring threat as well.

The concern ahead of the two must-win games against China and Saudi Arabia, however, lies in some glaring absences at the the heart of defence, where along with no Takehiro Tomiyasu there will be a Maya Yoshida-shaped hole for the first time in almost a decade.

Japan’s captain hasn’t missed a big game for his country since injury kept him out of a 1-1 draw away to Australia in June 2012, and the loss of his presence on and off the pitch undoubtedly represents a huge blow.

Yuzo Kurihara filled in for Yoshida the last time he was unavailable for meaningful national team duty, and the Yokohama F.Marinos man had an eventful evening in Brisbane, scoring Japan’s goal, making a heroic goal-line clearance, and then receiving a late red card as Alberto Zaccheroni’s men picked up a vital point on their way to Brazil 2014.

Since then Yoshida has been ever-present at centre-back in the biggest games, playing every minute of the matches that matter in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup, and World Cup finals, being rested only for the dead rubbers against Iraq in the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying and Uzbekistan in the group stage at the 2019 Asian Cup.

There are, of course, plenty of talented replacements available for Hajime Moriyasu to choose from in his and Tomiyasu’s places, but while each of those in the squad bring their own qualities to the pitch they all lack Yoshida’s experience on the international stage – in fact, they all lack much experience at all playing at centre back for the full national team.

Naomichi Ueda has been in and around the Japan set up for the longest of the alternative options, but while the Nimes man has been involved since the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia he has only played one game in the final round of World Cup qualifiers in that time, and that was the dismal 1-0 defeat at home to Oman last September.

Ko Itakura, meanwhile, is a promising option who has been in good form playing in a back three for Schalke of late, although like Ueda he has just a single competitive appearance for the full national team at centre back – and the ‘competitiveness’ of that fixture probably requires an asterisk, as it was the 10-0 romp over Myanmar last year.

Yuta Nakayama has also been playing as part of a three-man defence for his club PEC Zwolle recently, but despite emerging in that position for Kashiwa Reysol – being named as 2017 J.League Young Player of the Year in the process – centre-back isn’t a role he has occupied yet for the Samurai Blue, with his most recent appearances all coming as a second half replacement for Yuto Nagatomo at left-back.

Shinnosuke Nakatani was a late call-up after Tomiyasu was forced to pull out, and while a solid performer is another yet to be given a proper test playing for his country, with his three appearances coming in last year’s cruises against Mongolia (14-0), Tajikistan (4-1), and Kyrgyzstan (5-1).

That leaves Shogo Taniguchi as the final and, in my opinion, best option to fill Yoshida’s boots as the leader at the back for this pair of games. The 30-year-old only has a handful of appearances for Japan – none of which have come beyond the second round of World Cup qualifiers – and he is admittedly not as much of a ‘looking to the future’ option as those named above, but right now Moriyasu needs somebody to come in and help organise the back line, and even though he is still in the midst of his pre-season preparations that is something Taniguchi is definitely able to do.

The Kumamoto native has shown outstanding leadership and unshakability for Kawasaki Frontale over the past five years, missing just 16 of 174 league games as Toru Oniki’s side have established a J1 dynasty, and that experience and composure will be even more crucial in these matches with Tomiyasu also absent.

While he lacks Yoshida’s experience at the very highest level, in playing such a key role for Frontale as they have filled their trophy cabinet Taniguchi has shown that he is more than capable of dealing with the pressure of these two far-from-straightforward games.

Whichever understudy Moriyasu does ultimately go with will need to slot seamlessly into the back four over the next week, and they could do a lot worse by way of preparation than watching Kurihara’s performance from 10 years ago.

Well, red card aside, that is. With Japan’s progression to this year’s finals in Qatar still very much in the balance, they can’t afford to put a foot wrong.

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