Abu Dhabi, January 8: Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu has bullishly warned their 2019 Asian Cup rivals that his team head into their opening fixture with Turkmenistan in "top shape" as they go for an unprecedented fifth title.
Moriyasu has made a strong impact with Japan since taking over from Akira Nishino, to whom he was assistant at the 2018 World Cup.
They have not lost any of their five friendly matches under the new coach since the World Cup, with two of those being 3-0 wins over Costa Rica and Panama, while they also beat Uruguay 4-3 in October.
Moriyasu has not been afraid to make big calls so far, with his squad a blend of experience and youth, and missing Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa.
Rather than temper expectations, however, Moriyasu is confident and believes his team will take some stopping.
"We've gotten ourselves into top shape," Moriyasu told reporters at his pre-match news conference.
"It's important to be prepared to give 100 per cent. Under the circumstances, and given the time frame, we've prepared as best we can.
"When I assumed the post of head coach after the FIFA World Cup, I decided that it was best to have a blended squad, as we want to continue building Japanese football.
"I hope the young players in the squad take this challenge and perform in the Asian Cup as this will not only benefit the national team in the long run but also their individual careers."
Japan are firm favourites to top Group F ahead of Oman, Uzbekistan and Wednesday's opponents Turkmenistan.
But, with potentially three qualification spots up for grabs, there is a real opportunity for likes of unfancied Turkmenistan to get beyond the group stage.
Manager Yazguly Hojageldiyew – who is also coach of Altyn Asyr, the most heavily represented club in the squad with 11 players – accepts Japan will be expected to cruise, but he has faith in the spirit of his team, particularly after the triumph of getting through qualification in the first place.
"We know where Japan stand," Hojageldiyew said. "They are a very good team and we saw how they played in the FIFA World Cup. Their depth is such that you can't distinguish who their key players are.
"However, we also have a strong desire to perform and I believe that my players, who showed great determination to qualify for the finals, will be able to challenge Japan."
PLAYER TO WATCH
Japan – Ritsu Doan
Unfortunately, a calf injury has robbed spectators of the talents of Shoya Nakajima at this tournament. The upside is 20-year-old Groningen playmaker Doan will have more of an opportunity to impress. A clever, technically gifted midfielder, Doan is one of the next great hopes of Japanese football and will surely be one of the players to watch in this tournament, along with attacking colleague Takumi Minamino.
Turkmenistan – Altymyrat Annadurdyyev
If Turkmenistan are to have any impact on this tournament, their 25-year-old striker Annadurdyyev will most likely have something to do with it. The star man under coach Hojageldiyew at club level with Altyn Asyr, Annadurdyyev scored eight times in 11 games on the team's run to the AFC Cup final, while he also netted three en route to this competition.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- This will be the first encounter at the Asian Cup between Japan and Turkmenistan.
- Japan have won the Asian Cup more times than any other team. Their four trophies have come in the last seven editions; no other country has won it more than once in that period.
- Penalty shoot-outs excluded, Japan have lost only one of their last 28 games at the Asian Cup; a 3-2 defeat against Saudi Arabia in the 2007 semi-finals.
- This is Turkmenistan's second Asian Cup appearance. In 2004, they were knocked out in the group stages after failing to win a game, drawing once, losing twice.
- Turkmenistan were the only team to make it to the 2019 Asian Cup with a negative goal difference in their final round of qualifying.
Japan vs Turkmenistan
Wednesday, January 9
Al Nahyan Stadium
3 PM Local Time (4.30 PM IST)
Live on Star Sports 3
Streams via HotStar