- New face Yuya Kubo has starred for Japan on the road to Russia 2018
- Kubo has scored twice and provided three assists
- Japan can qualify with a win over Australia in their next match
It seems that whenever Japan are chasing a ticket to the FIFA World Cup™, a star player rises to the occasion when they need it most.
On the road to France 1998, Hidetoshi Nakata was the man responsible for Japan’s maiden World Cup qualification. The Japanese legend almost single-handedly fired them through, including setting up all three goals as they beat Iran 3-2 in the all-important play-off. Then came Shunsuke Nakamura who took up the mantle by starring as the Samurai Blue reached Germany 2006. Yasuhito Endo skippered Japan to South Africa 2010, while providing the driving force behind their progression to the last World Cup was none other than Keisuke Honda, who finished the team's top-scorer with five goals in the decisive final qualifying round.
Now again, Japan are on the verge of qualification, with victory at home against Australia on 31 August enough to secure them a place at Russia 2018. And the player shouldering most expectations this time around is in-form forward Yuya Kubo. The youngster has made just four qualifying appearances, but his performances have been nothing short of eye-catching. Kubo scored once and set up another as Japan collected a crucial 2-0 win in United Arab Emirates, before having a hand in three goals in their 4-0 rout of Thailand.
"The next game (against Australia) will be crucial for us," the 23-year-old Gent attacker told FIFA.com. "We are all too aware that we have to get ourselves well-prepared for this match. Personally speaking, this importance of this meeting needs no introduction. So I will get myself more than ready for the test against Australia."
Halilhodzic's guiding hand
Kubo's rise to fame is indeed meteoric. But those following his game closely know that his international emergence has been a natural progression, having shone from an early age. After cutting his teeth with Kyoto Sanga, Kubo moved to Switzerland's Young Boys, where he made over a century of appearances across four seasons. Since joining Belgian giants Gent at the start of 2017, Kubo has scored 11 times from just 17 appearances.
"I've been trying hard not to miss an opportunity to score when it comes," said the on-song goal-getter. "I guess that I am not doing my job badly. But I don't think I am already a star. There are many things I need to improve on, so I still need to work harder."
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Kubo’s development in Europe didn't go unnoticed by Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who gave him the first national team call-up last year. After testing the young player in the 2016 Kirin Cup, the Bosnian gave him a surprise start in a key World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia. Despite failing to find the back of the net - Japan won the match 2-1 - Kubo quickly began to gel in his new national team role, racking up two goals and three assists from the next two qualifiers.
"The coach asked me to try coming forward and cutting through the rivals' defensive line," said Kubo. "And he wants me to contribute not only in attack, but also in helping our defence when someone makes an error. It’s tough, but I like doing it."
Adding to the coach's guidance, the chances of training and playing with star team-mates have been another telling factor in Kubo's fast progress. Notably, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, with whom Kubo has formed attacking partnerships during recent qualifying games, have provided a source of constant inspiration according to Kubo.
"They are very successful players for both club and country," Kubo said of the two Shinjis. "I am doing my best to follow in their big footprints. There is much to learn from them, although our respective playing styles are dissimilar. I want to be a striker who can not only score but also create chances.”