Japan captain Maya Yoshida revealed he is relishing his new role as a father figure as the Samurai Blue usher in a new era under former national team Olympic coach Hajime Moriyasu.
Southampton centre-back Yoshida remains a key figure for Moriyasu, who was assistant to Akira Nishino at last summer’s World Cup before taking over following Japan’s run to the last 16 in Russia.
Yoshida took over the armband from Makoto Hasebe who retired after the tournament. It is a transitional period for the national team, with fellow icon Keisuke Honda also bringing the curtain down on his international career last summer, while lynchpins of previous World Cup and Asian Cup squads were not selected for the 2019 edition being held in the UAE.
The likes of Borussia Dortmund pivot Shinji Kagawa and Leicster City striker Shinji Okazaki were left at home by Moriyasu, with a new wave of young talent – Ritsu Doan, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Wataru Endo – being blooded.
Yoshida, who won his 92nd cap in the 1-0 last 16 victory over Saudi Arabia in Sharjah on Monday, is happy to be someone for the new generation to look up to.
“It’s my new role of the squad. As you said they are quite young players as well as a new manager and new challenges we have with Japan,” said the 30-year-old, although he revealed he’ll be happier if he can lift a record-extending fifth Asian Cup with Japan in the Emirates.
“I’m really happy with my position right now but I’m going to be much happier when I get the Asian Cup.”
He praised fellow centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu after the narrow victory over the Green Falcons saw Japan set up a quarter-final with Vietnam on Thursday.
Tomiyasu, just 20, featured in a back-line containing 28-year-old Marseille right-back Hiroki Sakai and the legendary Yuto Nagatomo – Japan’s sixth most capped player – at left-back.
But the man who plays in Belgium’s top-flight with Sint-Truiden and was winning only a sixth cap, scored the winner and generally looked at ease in his surroundings, earning adulation from his skipper.
“Today, defensively we played well,” said Yoshida.
“The set-pieces were key. Tomiyasu opened the game and he’s just come to the international level so I’m really happy with him and really happy also with the result and our commitment in the squad. I think we are getting better every game.
“I think the previous three games we had to deal with different conditions. We had some players only finishing the J League at the beginning of December, some of them had a winter break in Europe while I continued to play in England when I came into camp.
“The temperature is different and the jet leg too, many things are different, which affect the performance. But after three games we play much better, consistently.”
The Samurai Blue last lifted the continental title since 2011 and have yet to truly break out at the tournament. They have won all four games but all of them have come via one-goal margins. They enjoyed only 27 per cent possession against Saudi and had to defend stoutly for much of the game.
A mouthwatering potential last four clash awaits with Iran – Asia’s highest ranked team in FIFA – but Yoshida is not getting too carried away.
“Iran is one of the best countries in Asia but the most important thing is we go to the next round,” he added.
“We have only two days to recover from today to Vietnam. We have no information about Vietnam to be honest but we have to be ready for that game before Iran. I will think about Iran after that.
“Tactically they (Saudi) played very well. There distribution is very good and I think that’s because of the previous Dutch manager (Bert van Marwijk) and now the Argentinian manager (current boss Juan Antonio Pizzi).
“They prefer to have possession of the game but I think the gap between the Asian nations is getting closer every year.”
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