Wednesday 19 October 2016, 23:21

Rotation worth the risk for Japan's Tinkerman

With Naoki Kusunose, expect the unexpected. That is the lesson fans, journalists, even the Japan coach's own players, have learned over the course of Jordan 2016.

So frequent and far-reaching have Kusunose's selection changes been that it would, on the evidence so far, be tougher to predict his line-up for Friday's final than the outcome of the match itself. This, after all, is a man who had used all 21 of his players by the end of the group phase, and has continued to make sweeping alterations - dropping star players, promoting others from nowhere - in the knockout rounds.

Plenty wondered whether this philosophy would finally prove his undoing in the semi-finals, when Kusunose maintained his average of five line-up changes per game. Giving three players their first start of the tournament was remarkable enough, but leaving out, among others, Riko Ueki - player of the match in three of Japan's four previous games - seemed extraordinary. It was all the more so as their opponents were Spain, finalists in 2014, conquerors of Germany and, by any standards, not a team to be facing at less than full strength.

"Was it a risk? Yes, there's no doubt about it," Kusunose acknowledged candidly to "And although we won 3-0, we could easily have lost - the situation was critical for us at times."

The Japan coach is also honest enough to admit that, while rotating the squad has given every one of his players game time, not all are wholehearted supporters of his approach. "All footballers are the same: they think they should be starting every game," he said. "So there has been some frustration and even jealousy between players at times. That can make the build-up to matches quite stressful."

All of this begs the inevitable question: why risk disharmony and, worse still, elimination when he knows both to be real and present dangers? "If this was the senior team, I would do things differently," he explained. "But this is a development team and a development tournament, and I feel that all of my players should have - and need to have - real experience of tournaments like this to help them progress towards Japan's senior team."

I want my players to win this World Cup and for all of them to feel proud that they helped make it happen.

In this light, the prioritising of schooling over success seems noble; selfless even. Kusonose, though, has somehow managed to combine both elements, maintaining the team's sky-high standards and slick, cohesive style while relentlessly shuffling his pack. If there is a down side to five straight wins, with no discernible failures and several success stories, it is that the coach - like the rest of us - is now unable to identify his best XI.

"In this squad, I see the differences in standard between players as being very small," he said. "For that reason, it would be tough - very tough - to pick 11 from the 21 I have here."

Yet that, of course, is exactly what Kusunose must do between now and Friday, when he selects his sixth, final and most important line-up of Jordan 2016.

"Have I decided? Almost," he said. "I have a good idea but I am always looking to see how the players are feeling and how they look in training. There is also one player in my squad (midfielder Mayu Karahashi) who hasn't yet started a game and, ideally, I would like to give her that chance. I haven't completely decided yet but it is important to me that everyone in the squad experiences the feeling of winning and of being an important part of the team. I want my players to win this World Cup and for all of them to feel proud that they helped make it happen."

Not that retaining the trophy is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, this Japan team already knows from painful experience what it is like to lose a final against Korea DPR.

"They beat us in the Asian final the last time we met, of course, but we've studied a lot and learned a lot since that defeat. We want to make sure that we're the winners this time," said Kusunose. "The Koreans are a good side and their style isn't easy to play against, but we've already faced some very good teams here - England, Spain, USA - and beaten them all. I have told the players to think positively, and I see in them a conviction that they are going to win."

The big question now is which 11 of those players will earn the nod from Kusunose at Amman International Stadium. As always, it seems best to expect the unexpected.