(Highlights from Japan’s final game in Group A, a 3-2 loss to Egypt leading to their exit from the Toulon Tournament)
The Japan Under-23 national team’s preparations for London 2012 were underminded on Sunday as a 3-2 defeat against Egypt in the Toulon Tournament ended their participation at the group stage. Japan, who finished bottom of Group A with just three points and having conceded seven goals, had given themselves hope of further progress with a 3-2 success against the Netherlands after their abject display in the opening match with Turkey, but those hopes were dashed both by a pair of baffling decisions from referee Mounir Mabrouk and some hapless defending, a failing which has plagued the side throughout this competition.
While the surprise early exit may have prevented manager Takashi Sekizuka from deploying a few players on the periphery of selection in order to make their case for inclusion in the London 2012 squad, the coaching staff can take a number of positives from their brief spell in France, most particularly in the dazzling displays from Takashi Usami, whose performances have underlined why Bayern Munich were so keen to invest in the then nineteen year old; Manabu Saito, whose movement, acceleration and directness in attack has caused real difficulties for opposition defences, and the incisive passing and awareness of Yoshiaki Takagi.
Furthermore, Japan’s cause was not helped by several potential first-choice players being absent at Toulon, Shuichi Gonda, Hiroki Sakai, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi all called up into the senior squad in recent history, but conceding goals at a rate of more than two per match should certainly be a worry for Sekizuka, a troubling lack of positional awareness, a telling lack of height in dealing with crosses and frequently exposed full-backs among a number of concerns in defence.
The opportunity to select a pair of senior defenders to complement his back line, together with an additional outfield player from the three over-age options permissible, may thus prove welcome to Sekizuka, whose midfield contains what is best described as an over-abundance of attacking talent, with one of the most interesting decisions still to be made in whether he will seek out Shinji Kagawa to join the final squad. Kagawa qualifies under the age limits specified by FIFA as Under-23, but after a long and arduous Bundesliga season which only ended on 12 May, whether it would be either in the player’s or the national team’s interest to pursue another competition within such a short space of time is open to question.