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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Doubts Emerge on Japan’s Ability to Secure a Spot in 2022 World Cup

A loss to Saudi Arabia exacerbates Samurai Blue’s challenge of qualifying for next year’s tournament in Qatar.

For the Japan men’s national soccer team, the path to securing a spot for the 2022 FIFA World Cup looks a lot less promising than it did several weeks ago.

Saudi Arabia defeated visiting Japan 1-0 on Thursday night, October 7, adding pressure on manager Hajime Moriyasu’s squad to bounce back against unbeaten Group B foe Australia.

Japan plays host to Australia at Saitama Stadium in a must-win Asian qualifier on Tuesday, October 12.

Samurai Blue, who have qualified for six consecutive World Cups, are currently tied with Group B foes Oman and China in the standings, all with three points. Vietnam sits at the bottom of Group B with zero points from three matches.

Australia and Saudi Arabia share the lead with a maximum nine points from three contests in the final round of qualifying.

Japan fell to Oman 1-0 on September 2 in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, before collecting its only win so far in the final round of qualifying, 1-0 against China in Doha on September 8.

After the China match, Japan captain Maya Yoshida acknowledged that he’s not satisfied with the team’s offensive production of late.

“While we got the three points for the win, there were still a lot of areas needing improvement. It was still close and I had hoped we could score another goal,” Yoshida said, according to published reports.

That desired increased goal-scoring didn’t happen against Saudi Arabia, which adds to the pressure for Moriyasu’s men against Australia. The Socceroos are winners of a record 11 straight matches in a single qualifying campaign, including 3-1 against Oman on the same night as Japan’s defeat.

Two days later, Australian manager Graham Arnold said his squad is focused on beating Japan, not celebrating its win streak.

“It’s something we’ll probably reflect on in the future and what a great feat it has been, especially playing 10 out of 11 games away from home,” Arnold told the Asian Football Confederation website.

“But to me it’s all about going to Japan and getting ready for Japan in Japan and making it 12 [wins].”

In a match bereft of goal-scoring drama, Saudi Arabia substitute Firas Al-Buraikan scored the lone goal in the 71st minute in Jeddah, derailing Japan’s winning ambitions.

For Japan, fatigue was a key factor in the loss, according to Moriyasu.

“We got tired and lost our rhythm, that’s when they capitalized and scored,” were the words he used to sum up the game’s outcome, according to Kyodo News.

That said, Moriyasu refuses to throw in the towel.

“If we don’t give up, I believe we can still win a ticket to the World Cup,” the Japan manager added.

If Japan can’t finish in the top two in Group B in late March 2022, when the qualifying round ends, the process of qualifying is even more of a crapshoot. The third-place teams in Group B and Group A will then vie for a spot in the intercontinental playoffs, with one match at home and the other away. The advancing Asian team will have a final shot at reaching the World Cup. The other national squads will then be on the outside looking in, plotting for ways to get better in their quest to book spots in the 2026 World Cup.

Scoring goals has been Japan’s biggest weakness to date in the final round of World Cup qualifying, with Yuya Osako’s strike against China the only goal on Samurai Blue’s stat sheet.

Consider this an ongoing national team crisis.

Arsenal’s Tomiyasu Chosen Team Player of the Month

With newcomer Takehiro Tomiyasu in the Arsenal lineup after his deadline-day transfer from Bologna, the North London team earned 10 of 12 points in a successful September in the Premier League.

The right back’s defensive acumen and tenacious play has grabbed people’s attention, starting with his debut against Norwich two days after joining the club.

Tomiyasu, 22, was named Arsenal’s Player of the Month for September on Thursday, October 7.

Speaking to the team’s official website about the up-and-coming defender, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said: “He is so excited, you can see that for him it is a dream to be here and he is doing it in the right manner, with the passion but with the right commitment, and as well with the right amount of self-assurance that he is capable of doing it.”

Arteta added: “I’m very impressed, he has done it in a really natural way. It puts a smile on your face when you look at him, for how he communicates, how he is.”

Winter Olympics

Harada, Ito Assigned to Leadership Posts for Team Japan

Nagano Olympics ski jumping standout Masahiko Harada will serve as the Japan Olympic delegation’s general manager for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, it was announced on Thursday, October 7.

The Japanese Olympic Committee’s board of trustees confirmed the news following a meeting on the same day.

The 53-year-old Harada captured gold in the large hill team event and earned an individual bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Harada was appointed a JOC director in June. He’s served as a Ski Federation of Japan director since 2015.

Joining Harada in a key leadership post for Team Japan is Hidehito Ito, who has been named the delegation’s chef de mission.

Ito, 60, is the Japan Skating Federation’s figure skating committee chairman.

Baseball

Ohtani Chosen as Baseball Digest Player of the Year

Baseball Digest, a staple of American baseball coverage since 1942, selected Los Angeles Angels sensation Shohei Ohtani as its 2021 MLB Player of the Year award recipient.

An announcement was made on Thursday, October 7.

Ohtani, who bashed 46 home runs, drove in 100 runs and stole 26 bases as the Angels’ everyday designated hitter, received 16 of 19 first-place votes from the magazine’s expert panel.

In a press release, the magazine summed up Ohtani’s unique blend of power and speed this way: “[He] is the only player in MLB history with a season of at least 45 home runs, eight triples, 25 doubles and 25 stolen bases.”

As a starting pitcher, Ohtani went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 23 starts.

RELATED: [ODDS and EVENS] Shohei Ohtani’s Phenomenal Productivity Outshone a Disappointing MLB Season for Japanese Players

Lions Skipper Tsuji to Step Down at Season’s End

Hatsuhiko Tsuji’s reign as Saitama Seibu Lions manager will conclude at the end of the regular season, the team announced on Thursday, October 7.

The 62-year-old Tsuji will be replaced by Lions coach Kazuo Matsui.

After leading the Lions to a trio of Pacific League Climax Series appearances in his first three seasons at the helm (2017-2019), Seibu missed the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign – and will do so again this fall.

The fifth-place Lions were 50-63-18 through Friday, October 8.

Matsui, 45, was selected by the Lions in the third round of the 1993 draft. He played his first game for the club in 1995 and retired as a Lion in 2018.

In between, his lengthy playing career included stints with the New York Mets (2004-06), Houston Astros (2008-10) and Colorado Rockies (2006-07, 2010) before returning to NPB and competing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (2011-17).

RELATED: BASEBALL | Birds of Prey: Unsung Swallows Upstage Giants, Tigers in Central League

Wrestling

Japan Shines at World Championships 

With the spotlight on the sport reaching its zenith during the Tokyo Olympics in late July to early August, the timing of the World Wrestling Championships from October 2-10 might seem a bit odd.

Nevertheless, for Japan and other nations competing in Oslo, it’s a good opportunity for younger wrestlers to gain valuable experience on the global stage.

None of Japan’s Olympic team wrestlers from this summer traveled to Oslo to compete. But the Japanese contingent in the Norwegian capital has impressed, winning five gold medals through Friday, October 8.

Tsugumi Sakurai collected gold in the women’s 55-kg freestyle division with a 10-0 technical fall victory over Germany’s Nina Hemmer on Tuesday, October 5.

“I was able to get on the mat with confidence, thanks to all the support I got that allowed me to do well here,” Sakurai was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

“There were wrestlers who appeared in the Olympics and those that have good results, and I was able to go head-to-head against them and beat them. It gives me confidence.”

Three days after Sakurai’s title-clinching triumph, Ken Matsui became Japan’s youngest Greco-Roman world champion.

Matsui, 20 years and 8 months old, secured the title by beating Russia’s Emin Sefershaev 7-1 in the 55-kg final.

“I wasn’t expecting to win, so I’m really surprised,” Matsui said, according to Kyodo News. “I was facing a superior opponent in the final, so I decided to show all my skills and not have any regrets”.

Through Friday, Japan had also claimed world titles by women’s freestyle wrestlers Remina Yoshimoto (50 kg), Akari Fujinami (53 kg) and Masako Furuichi (72 kg).

Tennis

Osaka Drops Out of Top 10

Naomi Osaka slipped out of the top 10 in the latest women’s singles rankings, which were released on Monday, October 4.

The four-time Grand Slam singles champion fell from seventh to 12th.

Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka and Karolina Pliskova remain Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

Osaka has been a constant in the top 10 for more than three years.

The last time she was ranked outside the top 10 was on August 20, 2018, when she was No. 19.

But the former world No. 1’s prolonged absence and early exits from tournaments this year contributed to her fall in the rankings.

Is it a harbinger of things to come? Will she become a Grand Slam title contender again or have we already witnessed the end of her best days as a player?

Basketball

Albirex Forward Paras Provides Late-Game Excitement

Niigata Albirex BB newcomer Kobe Paras delivered a thunderous dunk in the final minute of Saturday’s game against the host San-en NeoPhoenix at Hamamatsu Arena.

The B. League’s English-language Facebook page features highlights and up-to-date information on its growing Asian players ー from Paras’ home country the Philippines and other East Asian nations ー a sign of its commitment to promote its players and teams beyond Japan.

Watch Paras’ electrifying slam here.

Paras, a 24-year-old small forward, scored 21 points and boosted Niigata’s defensive effort with two steals and two blocks in a 77-64 win over San-en. Teammate Rosco Allen had a game-high 23 points.

Paras scored 25 points in his B. League debut on October 2 against the Kyoto Hannaryz.

Quotes of the Week

“I always enjoyed working with Takuma [Sato]. His dedication and commitment to not just his craft, but also the team was unquestionable. We wish him all the best on his next opportunity. I would like to think we will always remain friends because we just enjoyed each other’s company.”

Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, on the team’s decision to not renew the two-time Indy 500 winner Sato’s contract. The announcement was made on October 5.

“We are very happy to have signed a licensing agreement with NPB in the memorable year when Topps started its business in Japan. With the agreement, we hope to increase the number of trading card fans in Japan as much as possible.”

Satoshi Misu, general manager of Topps Company, Inc.’s Japan office. The iconic baseball card company with a history of 80 years producing MLB cards is releasing trading cards for all 12 NPB teams for the first time. The licensing agreement was announced on October 6.

Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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