Goalkeeping woes threaten Japan's Asian Cup hopes

AFP , Thursday 1 Feb 2024

Japan's Asian Cup risks being fatally undermined by coach Hajime Moriyasu's reliance on an error-prone rookie goalkeeper and he has left himself with no convincing alternatives.

Zion Suzuki
Japan's goalkeeper #23 Zion Suzuki concedes his team's first goal during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup football match between Bahrain and Japan at al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on January 31, 2024. Photo: AFP

 

The pre-tournament favourites face Iran on Saturday in the quarter-finals but serious questions hang over 21-year-old Zion Suzuki, whose confidence looks shot.

Japan have yet to keep a clean sheet in Qatar and the goalkeeper's mistakes have cost them at least one goal in every game so far.

Suzuki, whose father is Ghanaian-American and mother Japanese, has been racially abused online.

But even if Moriyasu wanted to take Suzuki out of the firing line, he has left himself with two backups who have only one international cap between them.

The coach is paying the price for failing to settle on a number one before the tournament and now faces a decision whether to stick or twist against Iran.

Suzuki, in his eighth appearance for Japan, was involved in a mix-up with a team-mate that led to an own goal in the 3-1 win over Bahrain in the last 16 on Wednesday.

Writing in Nikkan Sports, columnist Sergio Echigo said Suzuki had become "a concern".

"He's not so good at dealing with balls played in from the wings," he wrote.

"If you look at these four games, his positioning, judgement, timing and hand-eye co-ordination have all been off."

Suzuki plays for Belgian side Sint-Truiden and went into the Asian Cup with only four international appearances under his belt.

Of the two other goalkeepers in Moriyasu's squad, Daiya Maekawa has one cap and Taishi Brandon Nozawa has yet to make his Japan debut.

The coach has used five different goalkeepers since Japan's last-16 exit at the 2022 World Cup just over a year ago.

Of those, Sanfrecce Hiroshima's Keisuke Osako is currently injured but Europe-based pair Daniel Schmidt and Kosuke Nakamura were left out of the Asian Cup squad.

Shuichi Gonda has not featured at all since playing for Japan at the World Cup, with Moriyasu ruling him out on the grounds that he plays in the J-League second division.

Rotating cast

Speaking after Japan qualified for the Asian Cup last 16, Moriyasu said he had made his choice based on the "past, present and future".

"Zion has been playing regularly in Europe and I think he was the only one -- he was in the best condition," said Moriyasu.

"There are others in Europe but they weren't getting regular games. If you look at the J-League goalkeepers, they were all in their off-season."

Japan have never had a clearly established number one goalkeeper since Moriyasu took over in 2018.

Eiji Kawashima played at three World Cups and hung on to compete with Gonda and Schmidt for the starting job in the 2022 edition.

Now Moriyasu finds himself with an inexperienced group to choose from as Japan chase a record-extending fifth Asian Cup.

He made Suzuki his number one only two games before the tournament kicked off.

"If I asked everyone to choose who is the number one, two and three, I think everyone would have a different answer," said Moriyasu.

Suzuki has faced up to his critics, accepting that he is "held to a higher standard" as Japan's number one.

The columnist Echigo said that Suzuki should "practise penalties because that's how Japan went out of the World Cup.

"With penalties the ball comes straight at you, so maybe that's where Suzuki's strengths lie."

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