Asian Cup final perfect platform for Japan's Takumi Minamino to prove class
After three years in international wilderness, Blue Samurai's rejuvenated No 9 ready to make up for lost time
Takumi Minamino was 18 years old, not yet a first-team regular, when he scored the kind of goal that makes the world sit up and take note of a name.
It helped immensely that the opponents that evening in the summer of 2013 were Manchester United, on a pre-season tour of Japan, and that this was a United attracting even greater interest than usual as they began their post-Alex Ferguson epoch.
But even without all that, the goal, Cerezo Osaka’s second in a 2-2 draw, travelled widely as a clip across cyberspace and on global news channels because it was a piece of work to admire: A poised tee-up, followed by a curling, top-corner arrow of a strike from 25 metres, all the more applauded for coming from the right foot of a teenager. And one who wanted to be recognised: Minamino celebrated by pointing to the No 13 on his jersey, as if to say: "Remember Me."
In the five and half years since, Minamino has felt at times that some important, influential football people in Japan have not remembered him well enough.
Friday’s Asian Cup final will earn him only his 13th international cap, a modest return for a player who turned 24 two weeks ago and for whom that stunner against United was not a freak event but a genuine glimpse of his enterprise, his talent and his liking for the big occasion.
Minamino wears the No 9 jersey for Japan these days. His role in a team who look to have have paced themselves wisely through the Asian Cup is set a little back from that of a centre-forward. But he looks and plays like a leader.
It was he who unlocked the stalemate against Iran in a semi-final far tighter that the eventual 3-0 scoreline suggests.
Minamino’s alert presence of mind, chasing a loose ball when Iran’s defenders assumed a foul was about to be whistled against them and became distracted, led to the first goal, Minamino’s cross providing it. The second came from a penalty awarded when a Minamino centre was handballed. Thus two match-shaping cameos in which Minamino’s tenacity and fine technique had combined.
He has been honing those skills at RB Salzburg for the past four years, the Austrian club having seen the evidence of his teenage talent at Cerezo Osaka, and steadily made him a central part of their growing ambitions.
He has four league titles with the serial Austrian champions, and has had a good past 12 months for his club.
It featured a Europa League run to the semi-finals, although he was largely used as impact substitute in that competition last season. In the current campaign, which has taken Salzburg out of a tough group into next month’s knockouts, Minamino has been given greater responsibility, encouraged to take up central striking positions: his four goals from three starts in the 2018/19 Europa League include a hat-trick against Rosenborg in November.
“He has really paid back the trust I put in him,” Salzburg manager Marco Rose says.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu has shown a similar faith. Minamino, who won his first senior cap way back in 2015, took no part in Japan’s 2018 World Cup campaign and conceded that his three-year exclusion from Japan's plans had made “him think a lot".
Moriyasu, who took charge after Japan’s last-16 elimination in Russia, made Minamino a figurehead of his rejuvenation of the squad. The player responded with elan, on the scoresheet in each of his first three matches under the new manager, and twice in a morale-boosting 4-3 win over Uruguay in October.
He can expect to be closely marked against Qatar on Friday. Minamino has an obvious appetite for duels, for slaloms past and between defenders, has a neat stepover trick, and the body strength to back all that up.
He has also waited a while to be on a grand international stage to show off his repertoire. He has that platform now.
Updated: January 31, 2019 07:59 AM