Japan coach Takeshi Okada admitted Shunsuke Nakamura is vital to their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign after the Celtic star was recalled following eight months on the sidelines.
Nakamura, despite playing with a painful left thigh, was the main plus of Tuesday's drab 0-0 draw with Paraguay which helped Asia's top-ranked team retain the Kirin Cup. Japan return to FIFA World Cup qualifying against Oman at home on Monday with work to do after a shock defeat to Bahrain in March.
"I have realised anew his presence, the accuracy of his play and the fact that he is a player with very high ability to read how the game develops," Okada said. "We cannot afford to lose the World Cup qualifiers. We are determined to win and we'll keep it up," he said.
Okada used his European-based players in the mini-tournament for the first time since returning to the role in December following Ivica Osim's life-threatening stroke. "I have tried to build a solid team base through the Kirin Cup and I am feeling some good response," Okada said. "We are getting faster in moving the ball. We will keep on doing that."
Frustration for Naka
Japan struggled past under-strength Côte d'Ivoire 1-0 in their earlier Kirin Cup match, which Nakamura missed while he helped Celtic clinch their third straight Scottish title on the last day of the season. "With Shun (Nakamura) in the game, we could find where to put the ball," said midfielder Yasuhito Endo.
Nakamura said the team passed well but lamented their profligacy in front of goal. "We lacked follow-up moves," he said. "We must play in a way to embarrass the opponents. We must be aware about what we should do to win."
Local media agreed, with the influential daily Asahi saying Japan "lacked finishing touches and ended scoreless after failing to break down Paraguay's solid defence."
After Monday's match, Japan play away in Oman on 7 June and Thailand on 14 June. They will then fly home hoping for revenge against Bahrain on 22 June. Bahrain are top of Asian Group 2 with two wins and six points, ahead of Japan and Oman on three and winless Thailand. The top two finishers will advance to the final Asian qualifying round from September.
Nakamura has admitted a "sense of crisis" surrounds Japan's qualifying campaign and has vowed to help them win all four remaining matches. The playmaker was at the heart of Japan's best moves, crossing to Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Seeichiro Maki and shooting from distance. In frustration, he shot direct from a corner in stoppage time.