Japan's quarterfinal exit from the Asian Cup in Qatar may have been a predictable end to the tournament for a team who never lived up to their billing as favorites.

Before a ball had been kicked, some of the team's Europe-based stars had openly questioned the scheduling of a competition that forced them to leave their clubs at a crucial stage of the season.

Their comments reflected the dilemma for Japan at a time of unprecedented success for the country's players in overseas leagues. Whether they were unwilling or unable, some squad members did not seem fully focused on the ill-timed continental competition.

Japan players (from L) Takumi Minamino, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Wataru Endo walk off the pitch after losing 2-1 to Iran in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Feb. 3, 2024. (Kyodo)

"Myself included, we still really lack many things and have to fight more in terms of passion and conduct on the pitch," Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu said after Saturday's 2-1 quarterfinal defeat to Iran.

"I couldn't feel the (team's) passion, especially in the second half, and from myself too."

Like his players, manager Hajime Moriyasu has openly stated the target of winning the 2026 World Cup, with the Asian Cup a step along the way. His choice of youth over experience in the crucial position of goalkeeper indicated he was indeed focused on the longer-term goal over immediate success.

In a bold move, Moriyasu chose not to retain any of his three goalkeepers from the 2022 World Cup. At just 21, Zion Suzuki was the most capped member of the new trio, with three previous senior appearances. He played all five of Japan's Asian Cup games but did not keep a clean sheet in any of them.

The feel-good factor around Moriyasu's tenure, stemming from his World Cup success and a subsequent 10-game record winning streak, will be a distant memory for some segments of the Japan fan base following the premature exit from the Asian Cup.

The manager drew heavy criticism back home for reviving a previously unfruitful setup featuring Takumi Minamino on the left in the 2-1 group-stage defeat to Iraq, and he admitted he had been unable to make the right substitutions against Iran.

The departure during the tournament of winger Junya Ito, following accusations of sexual assault allegedly committed last June, also left the squad without one of its attacking mainstays while subjecting it to undesired media attention.

After missing out on their only realistic chance of winning a major international trophy, Japan's manager and players have plenty to reflect on from what was ultimately a hugely testing tournament.

"Winning these tough matches and advancing in the tournament is an issue we have to tackle," Japan captain and Liverpool midfielder Wataru Endo said. "I think there are reasons behind the teams who win tournaments, and each of us has to think about what they are."


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