Japan in cruise control but key players have plenty to prove in World Cup qualifiers

Yuya Osako of Japan is congratulated by his team mate Takumi Minamino after scoring his side's fifth goal during the FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier second round match between Japan and Myanmar at Fukuda Denshi Arena on May 28, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

With 37 goals scored and none conceded from six wins so far in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Japan have been coasting through their campaign.

While their two upcoming matches over the next fortnight may appear routine, some of their key players could have plenty to prove -- especially after lacklustre campaigns at the club level.

A lot has changed since the last World Cup, where Japan did well to progress from a tough group that also included Colombia, Senegal and Poland before narrowly losing 3-2 in the Round of 16 to a star-studded Belgium outfit which eventually finished third.

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Stalwarts like Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe retired from international duty, while once-permanent fixtures such as Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki made way for younger blood after coach Hajime Moriyasu took over the reins.

The exodus left a leadership void -- one that initially looked like it would comfortably be filled by several excellent candidates.

Yet, given the less-frequent nature of international football, a national team relies on how well its representatives are performing week in, week out for their clubs. Based on the recently-concluded European calendar, Moriyasu is bound to have a few concerns.

Veterans Maya Yoshida and Yuto Nagatomo, each with more than 100 caps to his name, continue to perform admirably. But the names further down the sheet create concerns.

Yuya Osako, who led the attack manfully at the last World Cup and is still the Samurai Blue's spearhead, suffered relegation from the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen -- the club's first since 1980 -- without scoring once throughout the campaign.

Genki Haraguchi, who was so impressive at Russia 2018, is set to play a third season of second-tier football in Germany next term, with Hannover nowhere near promotion this year after finishing 13th in the 2. Bundesliga.

And it is not just the German-based contingent that is struggling.

After seemingly having put his Liverpool nightmare behind him with a loan move to Southampton, where he netted twice in his first three matches, Takumi Minamino barely made a ripple in the Premier League thereafter.

Meanwhile, the once highly-rated Gen Shoji, whom big things were expected of when he earned a move to France with Toulouse, only lasted a year in Europe before returning to Japan, while Takuma Asano -- once on the books of Arsenal -- does not even have a club at the moment having been released by Partizan Belgrade at the start of May.

It is unlikely that their personnel's club-related issues will affect Japan's prospects in the immediate future, for they still have far too much quality to be troubled by Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic.

Osako and Minamino certainly did not let those woes affect them in Japan's most-recent qualifier, when they jointly contributed seven goals in a 10-0 rout of Myanmar.

Nonetheless, Moriyasu will be aware that tougher tests lie ahead on the road to Qatar 2022, and the Samurai Blue coach has been wise enough to reward form over reputation. He has handed standouts from the domestic J1 League like Kyogo Furuhashi, Ryoya Ogawa and Miki Yamane a chance to impress recently.

It is still certain that names such as Osako and Minamino will be among the first on the Japan team sheet -- and quite likely on the score sheet -- as the Japanese wrap up their second-round qualifiers over the next couple of weeks.

But more so than just securing Japan's place in the next round, it might be imperative for these players to prove their worth -- even if it is to catch the eye of potential suitors and earn a move that could reignite their club careers.