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Takakura’s Japan ready to shoot for second title


Nagasaki: 25 years after leading the competition’s scoring charts, Nadeshiko great Asako Takakura is aiming to continue her run of major tournament triumphs and guide Japan to a second successive AFC Women’s Asian Cup title.

Long before Japan became a global power of the women’s game, Asako Takakura established herself as one of it’s stars

After making her national team debut at the age 16, the Fukushima-native enjoyed stellar playing career, which included 79 international caps, 29 goals and two Nadeshiko League MVP awards at club level.

A coaching career beckoned and, starting in 2013, Takakura won the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship, FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and AFC U-19 Women’s Championship in successive years.

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When legendary boss Norio Sasaki stepped down following Japan’s failure to qualify for the Rio Olympics, Takakura was the obvious candidate to replace him, and duly became the national team’s first female head coach in April 2016.

Now, a quarter of a century after sharing the 1993 AFC Women’s Championship top scorer title with Chinese star Liu Ailing, the five-time AFC Female Coach of the Year is set to lead her senior national team in a major tournament for the first time .

“It has been a year and 11 months since I was been appointed as coach, and we are finally here,” she said at the Japan’s final squad announcement.

“Up until this point, we have selected and tried out nearly 45 players. We explored their potential, their possibilities, and their growth… but now that we are facing our final goal, we are done experimenting, and I have selected players who are ready to play.

“I have prioritised those who can fight on the pitch right now.”

Takakura’s final selection offers a fascinating mix of youth and experience. The 23-strong squad features six FIFA Women’s World Cup winners, and nine players who have previously played in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but forwards Mina Tanaka and Kumi Yokoyama are yet to feature in a major tournament.

It was, perhaps with that in mind that Takakura opted to select 32-year-old forward Nahomi Kawasumi (pictured below) for the first time in her two-year tenure.

The Seattle Reign striker is a seasoned tournament player who scored two goals at Germany, and two more in Vietnam four years ago to play her role in Japan’s maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup and AFC Asian Cup wins.

With 119 appearances, midfield dynamo Mizuho Sakaguchi is the most capped player in the squad, but Japan’s experience lies mainly in their defence, with Rumi Utsugi, Aya Sameshima and 2017 AFC Women’s Player of the Year runner-up Saki Kumagai all selected.

The trio will be expected to put a stop to Japan’s recent defensive woes. They have conceded two or more goals in six of their last 11 matches – including a 4-2 loss to Jordan 2018 rivals Australia last July, and a 6-2 defeat to the Netherlands at last month’s Algarve Cup. 

Takakura acknowledged it’s an area that her side must improve.

“(In recent matches) we have made a number of errors in both offence and defence, and while we made mistakes, we have made the adjustments to improve the overall quality of the team,” she said.

“But in crucial moments, especially in defence, we have made errors that led to conceding goals.”

 

While their Algarve Cup campaign started in nightmare fashion against the Lieke Marten-inspired European champions, Japan responded with wins over Iceland and Denmark to finish a creditable sixth.

That improvement has created hope that Takakura’s side are finding form at the right time, but – drawn alongside Australia, Korea Republic and Vietnam – there will be little room for error.

“We will reinforce the team with the importance of keeping a high level of focus during the game, and the willpower to win the game,” said Takakura, who will turn 50 the day before the April 20 final.

“We will prepare ourselves by creating a winning atmosphere heading into the tournament.”

Japan have become accustomed to a winning atmosphere in recent years, and, with one of Asia’s footballing greats leading the way, it may well continue in Jordan.

Photos: AFP

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