Japan's manager has high hopes for Usami
BUNDESLIGA-BOUND Yoshinori Muto has been included in Japan's squad for their upcoming World Cup qualifier against Singapore, but it is the form of Gamba Osaka striker Takashi Usami that manager Vahid Halilhodzic is keen to exploit.
Japan host Iraq in a Yokohama friendly on June 11, before kicking off their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign against Singapore at Saitama Stadium five days later.
The Japanese have shown improvement under the 62-year-old Franco-Bosnian, who took over in March after Javier Aguirre was sacked amid fears that the Mexican's alleged involvement in a match-fixing case in Spain could hinder their World Cup hopes.
After a disappointing Asian Cup in January, in which the defending champions were knocked out in the quarter-finals by the United Arab Emirates, the Japanese appear to be back on track after wins over Tunisia and Uzbekistan.
Usami, who scored as a second-half substitute in Japan's 5-1 rout of the Uzbeks in March, is the joint top scorer in the Japanese top flight with 10 goals from 12 games, and the buzzing forward has been a joy to watch in the Asian Champions League.
"I expect a lot from Usami," Kyodo News quoted Halilhodzic as saying yesterday. "He's had a good season so far and he'll probably end up being top scorer.
"He has enormous talent and will only get better. He has a lot to offer to the national team."
Halilhodzic could pair Usami with Muto at some point, though the 22-year-old FC Tokyo striker - who recently opted for a move to German side Mainz instead of English champions Chelsea - is more likely to start on the bench.
"We won the two games in March but we need to build on them," the manager said. "I want to create a winning culture while I'm here, which I believe is of utmost importance."
Halilhodzic has included 12 foreign-based players in his 25-man squad, including Yuto Nagatomo of Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda from AC Milan.
Japan will also face Syria, Afghanistan and Cambodia in a straightforward Group E.