Overseas Stars Honing Skills for NT Duty
The Japan national team will hope to kick on following an excellent 2016 in which they won seven of their ten matches in all competitions. Vahid Halilhodzic has steered the Samurai Blue into a strong position in the final Qualifying Group for Russia 2018 after losing 2-1 in their opening game in Saitama against the UAE, with victories against Thailand, Iraq and Saudi Arabia putting Japan in a good position to qualify for their six consecutive appearance at the World Cup. The manager will hope that his national team stars continue to impress at their respective clubs in order to remain in content for the five remaining qualifying matches coming up in 2017, with Halilhodzic willing to give those who catch his eye a chance to shine.
It is great for the fams to see the J.League stars that they follow get a chance at national team level, with Naomichi Ueda, Ryota Nagaki and Manabu Saito amongst those who have deservedly broken through, and who may one day secure a lucrative move to Europe.
Gaku Shibasaki, who scored two fantastic goals for J.League champions and Emperor’s Cup winners Kashima Antlers in their FIFA Club World Cup Final defeat against Real Madrid, is the latest in a long line of Japanese stars who have moved overseas, with a loan deal with Spanish Segunda Division side Tenerife hopefully going well and to benefitting the talented midfielder. Kashima fans may back him to shine during his time in Spain with Betway, but Halilhodzic will hope that his more established stars will continue to lead by example as Japanese representation across the world.
One player who may be on the verge of domestic success in 2017 is Maya Yoshida who played his part in Southampton’s fantastic victory against Liverpool at Anfield to secure a 2-0 aggregate in the Capital One Cup Semi-Final to secure a date with destiny against Manchester United at Wembley. The 28-year-old centre-back has not always been a regular starter under Claude Puel, but Yoshida has performed well since Jose Fonte’s departure and Virgil Van Dijk’s injury left a considerable void in Southampton’s defence. Yoshida, a former Nagoya Grampus player who was part of the squad that won the Asian Cup in 2011, has played every minute of Japan’s World Cup Qualifying campaign, with a regular run of first-team football coming at the perfect time for both player and Halilhodzic.
Another player who is currently enjoying himself in Europe is Samurai Blues veteran midfielder Makoto Hasebe who is part of an Eintracht Frankfurt team that have taken everyone by surprise in the Bundesliga. They currently find themselves third in the table which would guarantee automatic qualification to next year’s Champions League, and although Betway believe that Frankfurt are too far away from Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig to make a shock push for the title, it would be a remarkable achievement if Hasebe and his team-mates were able to hold onto their current position. Borussia Dortmund, where fans can see Hasebe’s international team-mate Shinji Kagawa in action, are the closest challengers to Eintracht Frankfurt, while Genki Haraguchi and Yuya Osaka are also enjoying good domestic seasons with Hertha Berlin and Koln respectively.
For all of Japan’s European-based stars who have performed well this season, there are two recognised players who will hope that 2017 brings an improvement in fortunes. Despite being a part of the team that shocked the Premier League by finishing as 2015/2016 champions, Shinji Okazaki now finds himself in a relegation battle with Leicester. His endeavour and work rate has won him many admirers at domestic and international level, but the striker will need to start scoring in order to pull Leicester, who are sponsored by Thailand travel company King Power, out of the mire. While Okazaki is starting to get regular game time in the Premier League, the same could not be said for Keisuke Honda who appears to have drifted into the wilderness at AC Milan. The 30-year-old has started just one Serie A game this season, and although there is no question Honda has plenty of quality and still has a lot to give for the Samurai Blue, you cannot help thinking that a move back to the J.League might well resurrect his career.