Japan the only team with an unblemished record in the Tokyo 2020 group stage
Midfield chemistry a key element in their success thus far
Ritsu Doan and Wataru Endo have been speaking ahead of last-eight meeting with New Zealand
Hosts Japan comfortably cruised into the quarter-finals at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020, and the Samurai Blue have set their sights on more than winning a medal. In fact, midfielder Ritsu Doan wants his side to etch its name in the history books. “Of course, I can appreciate how difficult winning a gold medal in an individual sport must be,” the PSV Eindhoven man told FIFA.com, in a nod to the raft of gold medals Japan has won in judo at these Games. “But if we could win Japan’s first-ever gold medal in football, a team sport, I think that would be amazing. I don’t try to compare our team with the athletes in individual sports. I want to write a new chapter in Japan’s football history.” The first obstacle to achieving that target awaits on Saturday, when Japan play New Zealand for a berth in the semi-finals. After three straight wins in the group stage, Hajime Moriyasu’s side have found form at the right time. However, the coach is taking nothing for granted against the OlyWhites.
“Three wins in the group phase doesn’t guarantee anything in the knock-out stage. We’ll play to our strengths, make adjustments where necessary, and do our best,” Moriyasu said.
Japan scored seven goals and conceded just one at the group stage. Interestingly, midfielders netted five of those goals, a statistic partly explained by Japan’s preferred formation featuring a lone striker. However, recent Japanese football history suggests this knack of midfielders shining on the Olympic stage is not a one-off.
Unlike some football powerhouses that attach little importance to the Games, Japan has considered this a crucial tournament in the context of strengthening the senior national team. Some of Japan’s most gifted modern-day midfielders played at the Olympics, including Hidetoshi Nakata (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), Shunsuke Nakamura (Sydney), and Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa (both Beijing 2008).
Real Madrid dynamo Takefusa Kubo, who is currently on loan to Getafe, is perhaps the highest-profile player in the current Japanese midfield contingent. Kubo scored in all three group games and was often the spearhead of the team’s attack. His combination with Doan has gelled nicely, with both showing an ability to pick their moment when pressing forward.
Doan’s hunger for success at these Games in his home country is tangible, as he explained: “I’m desperate to win. Even if I’m on the bench, I watch the game like a spectator would and cheer the team on. I’ve probably never been so committed to doing everything for a team before. In that respect, the upcoming game will be a gauge of my own ability.
"Our squad has a positive mindset, and we stay on a pretty even keel. We have the potential to become a very good team. I think we’ll become a really strong side, but that requires us to produce good results.”
Another Japanese star turning heads is Wataru Endo. The Stuttgart defensive midfielder is the perfect foil for his more attack-minded team-mates, and he is confident the Samurai Blue have the mettle to trouble any opponent.
“Our first game against South Africa lacked intensity. In our second game against Mexico, they pressed forward with more intent, so we had to do the same. I think we matched Mexico when it came to switching between attack and defence. We showed that when our opponents play with intensity, we can also step it up,” Endo concluded.
New Zealand loom as a major obstacle on Saturday, but Japan’s midfield will, not for the first time at this tournament, hold the key to deciding the outcome.