Morioka return gives Japan a boost
Co-hosts Japan have received a timely boost three weeks before the start of the World Cup with the news that central defender Ryuzo Morioka has recovered from his long-term hamstring problems.
The 26-year-old played the full 90 minutes for Shimizu S-Pulse in their Nabisco Cup tie at Vissel Kobe on Thursday and suffered no ill effects from the hamstring injury that had threatened to rule him out of the World Cup.
"I felt a bit rusty and was a bit slow in my first one-on-one situation but, on the whole, it went better than I expected," Morioka said after a comfortable 2-0 win.
"It's just a question of finding my legs and getting used to the pace of the game again."
Japan coach Philippe Troussier names his final 23-man World Cup squad on May 17 but Morioka is one of a handful of players for whom the Frenchman would be prepared to extend that cut-off date.
Only Hidetoshi Nakata (Parma), Shinji Ono (Feyenoord) and goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Portsmouth) command the same kind of respect from Troussier.
Morioka, who captained Japan to their second Asian Cup triumph in Lebanon in 2000, tore a hamstring in pre-season training and has been undergoing intensive rehabilitation since early March in a bid to be fit for the World Cup.
The finals, being co-hosted by South Korea, kick off on May 31.
Morioka's return will come as a huge relief for Troussier after forwards Naohiro Takahara (lung infection) and Akinori Nishizawa (appendix) were all but ruled out of the World Cup earlier this week.
Although Japan have compiled a seven-match unbeaten run in internationals dating back to October, they have looked shaky in defence without Morioka, who has been a permanent fixture since making his debut against Brazil in Tokyo in March 1999.
Gamba Osaka defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, once a target for English premier league club West Ham United, has been unconvincing as deputy for Morioka in recent matches.
Miyamoto was at fault for two of the three first-half goals Japan conceded in the 3-3 Kirin Cup draw with Honduras in Kobe on May 2 when his lack of pace and poor positioning at set pieces was exposed by the visitors.
But with Morioka restored to the middle of the back three, Japan immediately become more solid. The S-Pulse defender has genuine pace and is one of the best readers of the game in Asia.
Morioka, who has played 32 times for Japan, is set to continue his comeback at home to FC Tokyo in the Nabisco Cup on Sunday.
"Right now it feels different back on a full-size pitch. I've got to keep working my way back into shape in the time that's left (before the World Cup)," he said.
For Troussier, whose side play a friendly against Norway in Oslo on Tuesday, Morioka's return to the national side cannot come soon enough.