Japan captain Maya Yoshida
Japan captain Maya Yoshida (centre) attends a training session on the eve of their match against Turkmenistan in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: Four-time champions Japan — who had a dream run in the 2018 World Cup in Russia — will start their AFC Asian Cup campaign against Turkmenistan in a Group F fixture at the Al Nahyan Stadium on Wednesday high on confidence.

This tournament has been their forte and the Samurai Blue will be hoping that they can be at their dominant best and build a strong team for the future. Coach Hajime Moriyasu took over the squad after the World Cup, where they made it to the last 16 before Belgium came back from two goals down to win a place in the quarter-finals. Moriyasu was confident of the new-look team continuing in the same vein and rising up to the challenge.

“Yes, we have some young and less experienced players in the squad but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have any experienced players at all. We have a perfect blend. The experience gained here by the young players will help in the development of Japanese football,” said Moriyasu, adding that he hoped the youngsters will have similar intentions to step-up during this Asian Cup.

Since Moriyasu took over, Japan have beaten Costa Rica, Panama, Uruguay and Kyrgyzstan convincingly in friendlies. The only team that managed to hold them to a 1-1 draw was Venezuela in November last year.

The Samurai Blue have reached the quarter-finals in every edition of the Asian Cup except in 1988. In the last tournament in 2015 in Australia, they won all their group stage matches without conceding a goal but were stunned by UAE in the quarter-finals.

It shouldn’t be a problem for them to slice past Turkmenistan but already some surprises have happened in this tournament and coach Moriyasu is not taking any opponent for granted.

“I’m sure these young players will rise up to the challenge and cope with the pressure of being favourites. It is about their career for future and many have the ambition to do well in Europe in future. Hence they need to cope up with the expectations. Hopefully, the experienced players in the team will support the youngsters as well,” said Moriyasu.

Maya Yoshida, captain and centre-back, said: “We know we need to win and are expected to win. We will be going for another World Cup (Qatar 2022) and we need to build a team for that. Players know that those who have retired have played a great role in making history for Japan football. We need to keep that pride intact and shoulder the responsibility. So all are eager to play well in this tournament,” said the Southampton defender, who went on to reveal that memories of the 2015 penalty shoot-out loss to UAE are still fresh and they want to erase that with success here.

“That was a huge disappointment but this is a new team with a new manager. After the World Cup last year, expectations are really high. But unlike the World Cup, the expectation on Japan is different at an Asian Cup, where we are expected to win. That brings its own pressure obviously and we need to be able to cope with that,” said Yoshida.

“We have already seen that teams like Thailand, Australia suffered defeats at the hands of India and Jordan, respectively. South Korea also scored just one goal in their win. Anything is possible and to do well in the first match is always important. We will have to play really well to advance to the next stage,” asserted Yoshida.