- Takuma Asano a key figure as Japan reached Russia 2018
- Asano a rising star of Samurai Blue’s attack under Vahid Halilhodzic
- *The 23-year-old says he has improved rapidly since joining Stuttgart *
Ambition is something which young Takuma Asano is not lacking. The 23-year-old may be one of the up-and-comers with Japan, having accrued just 12 international caps to date. Despite that modest level of top-grade experience, Asano is eyeing a regular place in Vahid Halilhodzic's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ squad.
"Regardless of my age and experiences, I am just trying to work hard to win my place with the national team," the forward, now plying his trade with German Bundesliga side Stuttgart, told FIFA.com.
"I want to do my utmost for the Japan team. Particularly, I want to contribute my share and that our team makes history in the World Cup."
It is bold statement from a young man, but one which speaks of a hunger for success.
In their five World Cups, Japan have progressed beyond the group stage just twice, reaching the Round of 16 in 2002 and 2010. The ambitions for Russia 2018 have not been aided by a challenging draw which pits Japan against Senegal, Poland and Colombia. Japan crashed to a hefty 4-1 defeat against the latter at Brazil 2014.
Still, Asano believes that Japan have a fair chance of progressing to the next stage if they maintain their performance level.
"I am not surprised about the draw results," he said. "And I am not delighted, either. No teams are clear-cut favourites to win this group.
“It is always a challenge for us to play against the world's best teams and we must give our all if we are to reach the second stage. But we should set new goals to achieve better results than before. For me, I should do my best to make to our World Cup team."
*Halilhodzic's go-to weapon *
The talented goal-scorer is among Halilhodzic's new favorites to spearhead Japan's attacking-line. It was the Bosnian coach who gave Asano his first national team call-up two years ago at the 2015 EAFF East Asian Championship.
Halilhodzic’s belief in the player was such that he started him in the all-important penultimate Russia 2018 qualifier against Asian champions Australia, in preference to star-strikers like Genki Haraguchi and Shinji Okazaki.
It was a decision which left even the player surprised. "To be honest, it was beyond my anticipation,” Asano said. “But I am a player who is always prepared for any test.
“Coach Halilhodzic asked me to cut through the Australian back-line. He wanted me to be aggressive in attack, but also helpful in defence."
Asano certainly repaid his coach's faith. He struck the opener and set up Yosuke Ideguchi for another as Japan beat Australia 2-0 to book their sixth World Cup appearance. It was Japan's first-ever World Cup qualifying victory against the Socceroos.
"It was good to score and help my team win. However, I was not satisfied with my performances. I shall continue to work hard to improve my game.”
*Making good in Germany *Standing at just 171cm, Asano is well aware of his best footballing assets. "My strengths are my movement on or off the ball, as well as my speed," said Asano, whose talents impressed Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, where he signed for the Gunners only to be loaned to Stuttgart.
Asano, however, says he has made good progress since joining Stuttgart last season. "I've improved on winning one-on-one duels since joining Stuttgart, and I have also become better in defence. These are skills and experiences which will help me perform better for Japan."
While Bundesliga commitments are the immediate priority, the prospect of a World Cup appearance in Russia looms large. And Asano is all too aware what challenges are awaiting Samurai Blue if they are to break new ground on the world stage.
"Of course we need to improve our scoring ability to win games. And we must be solid at defence and not concede goals cheaply. As for my role, I want to play and I want to score freely regardless of the opponent."