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BOTHROYD: Japan’s World Cup adventure was a memory to cherish, but it was also an opportunity missed

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In his latest column for The Sporting News, former J.League star and England striker Jay Bothroyd reflects on the end of Japan’s World Cup adventure, and gives his marks for the Samurai Blue’s campaign in Qatar.

A few days on from the heartbreaking defeat on penalties to Croatia, I’ve got mixed emotions about Japan’s World Cup campaign.

If you’d asked me at the beginning of the tournament what I expected, I would have been happy with this outcome. And the wins over Germany and Spain unquestionably showed Japan as a football nation taking leaps and bounds forwards.

But seeing Hajime Moriyasu’s team selection, and the way he went about things in the Croatia game, I can’t help but feel disappointed. They could have gone another step further. 

Japan were so good in the first 20 minutes against Germany and the way they finished that game. It was the same in the second half against Spain. I didn’t see any of that against Croatia.

MORE: As it happened — relive Japan’s Round of 16 defeat to Croatia at World Cup 2022

I saw them being very cautious in their play. They didn’t go out there and try to win it in the first minute. You look at Croatia and they’re an ageing team. If you put them under real pressure from the beginning, by the end of the game they’ll be tired. 

Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano were on the bench again. Had they started, Japan would have won that game. 

When I think about the team selection and how the tactics never really changed during the tournament — the changes Moriyasu made were more just about a boost of energy and more quality from the players who came on — I start to wonder, were players chosen because it could be there last World Cup?

Even when I was playing in the J.League, I felt that sometimes players played and got new contracts not because they earned them or were good enough, but because of what they had done previously for the club, or because they were a big part of the dressing room. Of course, you want good characters in your dressing room, but they still have to be top footballers, too. 

As a footballer, you always have to update your resume, and managers should always choose the best person for the job right now, not based on what they once were. 

Having spent six years of my life in the country, Japan are the team I want to do well after England. To be honest, right now I feel like I do when England lose. It just seems like a massive missed opportunity, and it could have been something really special for Japanese and Asian football.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of moments for fans to look back on fondly. Japan could now be facing a bit of a rebuild before the 2026 tournament, so it’s important to cherish the best things they did in Qatar. Here are my 2022 World Cup ‘awards’ for the Samurai Blue.

MORE: Japan’s World Cup exit was brutal, but their adventure in Qatar was something to see 

Best Moment — Takuma Asano’s winner against Germany

When Japan went 1-0 down against Germany, I think everyone — including myself — was fearing the worst. The second half was amazing and that goal rounded it off. It was great to see everyone running to the corner, jumping on each other. That was the best moment, it gave me goosebumps. I loved it!

Best Performance — Japan 2-1 Germany

I would say the Germany game as well, purely for the fact that Spain made a few changes against Japan and Germany played with their first 11. Even though Spain have got a great squad, they picked the team they did because they knew they’d pretty much qualified in that final group game.

When Japan play against teams like Germany and Spain, they put in a great performance. When they play against someone of similar quality, they put in a performance that means they go home thinking, ‘We didn’t play as well as we can’. That has to be what’s in their minds after Croatia.

Best Player — Kaoru Mitoma

It’s a toss-up because there’s another guy I want to have as my breakthrough player, so I’ll probably say Mitoma for this one. He put in some great performances from the bench; he always had an impact. How can a player like that, who comes off the bench and makes a big difference, not start the next game? I don’t understand it.

Why is he the 60th-minute man? He should be the 90-minute man. He should be there from minute one, and he should be one of the first names on the team sheet. It’s more difficult to be successful playing for Brighton in the Premier League than it is for Daichi Kamada playing in the Bundesliga and Yuto Nagatomo playing in the J.League. 

Mitoma is lighting the Premier League up — people are talking about him. If he continues like this, he’ll get a move to a bigger club. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Tottenham made a bid for him. They don’t have a wingback Antonio Conte likes and he’s got a couple of years left on his contract.

Breakthrough Player — Ritsu Doan

Doan is the standout to me in this team — he was fantastic. He was industrious, he covered a lot of ground, he got assists and got goals. He will grow from this. This could be the start of his club career in Germany; not being a bit-part player anymore at Freiburg but being an important player for his team.

Most Disappointing Player — Daichi Kamada

I feel like Kamada didn’t do enough or create enough. By the end, I’m looking at it and asking why’s he playing. If you’re taking Mitoma out of the team, who has been playing really well and made a difference in every game he’s played in, why is Kamada playing when he hasn’t performed? Is it loyalty? Is it reputation? I hope not.

There were some highlights, some nice passes and skills. We all know Kamada is capable of that because he’s been amazing for Eintracht Frankfurt, who won the Europa League last season. But at this World Cup, he never really affected the game and didn’t provide a goal or an assist.

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Best Goal — Takuma Asano vs Germany

This one again. Asano controlled it out of the air to begin with, which showed real quality. He held off the defender but, by that point, he could only put the shot in one spot. If he’d gone low across goal, the goalkeeper would have saved it with his feet. He had to put it high at the near post and it’s against Manuel Neuer, one of the best goalkeepers ever. That zone, that’s the only place to put it. That’s why it’s the best goal. It showed technique, pace, power and accuracy.

Hajime Moriyasu: Mark out of 10 — 6.5

Let’s be honest, there was no expectation of Japan getting out of the group. I thought they would probably lose against Germany, then I had them beating Costa Rica and trying to get something against Spain. In the end, all those results were wrong and they got six points! I’m giving Moriyasu 6.5 for that. Getting through that group was a massive achievement. 

The reason I can’t go to 7 and beyond is that it was a huge missed opportunity against Croatia. If they’d got through to play Brazil, one of the world superpowers, we’re talking about an 8 or an 8.5. He exceeded expectations, but now I’m sitting here feeling disappointed.


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