Kazan (Russia) (AFP) – Japan captain Makoto Hasebe promised Thursday that a late change of coach will not damage morale when they begin their World Cup quest against Colombia next week.
Four years after failing to win a game at Brazil 2014, Japan’s plans for an improved campaign in Russia were hit when the federation replaced Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic with Akira Nishino last month.
Having suffered two 2-0 friendly defeats to Ghana and Switzerland under Nishino’s leadership, Japan appeared to be set for another World Cup flop.
But a 4-2 win over Paraguay before arriving in Russia rekindled belief among the squad that they can battle their way out of a group also featuring Senegal and Poland.
Hasebe, who won the German Cup with Eintracht Frankfurt last season, told reporters on Thursday: “We are not dwelling on it, but it was a bit of a difficult situation.
“Despite that I think we will cope. We have three tough opponents. But they are not (defending champions) Germany, so we have a chance and we hope we can go further.
“The first game is important. They have players like James Rodriguez and (Radamel) Falcao etc.
“But we have good tactics, and if the whole team pulls together we can get a result.”
Having arrived in Kazan in central Russia on Wednesday evening, Japan’s players spent time with children from the local Russian Premier League club Rubin Kazan before being put through their paces by Nishino at the club’s training ground.
Afterwards, most of the focus was on the meeting with Colombia next Tuesday.
Boasting the likes of James Rodriguez, the Bayern Munich striker who was top scorer at Brazil 2014 with six goals, pacey Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado and Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, Colombia are tipped to go at least as far as their quarter-final appearance four years ago, where they lost 2-1 to the hosts.
Japan defender Maya Yoshida, who plays for Southampton, said: “Obviously it’s going to be really difficult for us.
“Colombia are a really good team, they’re one of the strongest teams in the group, so it’s going to be key.
“But we’re preparing very well. We’ve had a couple of difficult situations, difficult issues, but after the game against Paraguay I think all the players are feeling much better.
“Shoring up our defensive play as one of our first priorities. We’re feeling much better than a couple of weeks ago.”
After a disastrous campaign in Brazil, Yoshida says he has a personal score to settle.
“I don’t want to regret anything like I did at the last World Cup, I want to put everything 100 percent out there,” he added.
“We prepared four years for the Brazil World Cup and we couldn’t win any games. Personally, I couldn’t show my qualities and I had so many regrets after the competition.
“I still feel it (the pain) in my heart and my head, so I want to change my memories by making some good results in Russia.”
Japan left-back Yuto Nagatomo will be key to stopping the likes of Cuadrado, as well as using his pace to help Japan launch counter-attacks down the flanks.
But the Galatasaray player, on loan from Inter Milan, told AFP: “Colombia are really strong, Rodriguez, Falcao, Cuadrado — we’re not just talking about quality players, they’re top quality.
“It will be difficult, but a lot of our players play in Europe, so they’re used to the pressure.
“We’re doing well, we’re confident. I know it will be difficult, but we can do it. Right now, we’re focusing on this first game.
“We’re ready, we have faith.”