By Yoko Kono
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan coach Asako Takakura included 18-year-old forward Jun Endo but omitted prolific striker Mina Tanaka from her squad for the women’s World Cup on Friday.
The Asian champions won the World Cup in 2011 and finished runners-up four years ago but have slumped to seventh in the world rankings ahead of the June 7-July 7 tournament in France.
Takakura was nevertheless confident that her youthful squad with its experienced core of World Cup winners would be able to challenge for the title at what she thought would be a wide-open tournament.
“Ever since I became manager, we have been doing nothing but preparation for this World Cup,” she told a news conference at the headquarters of the Japan Football Association (JFA).
“It will be a tough challenge but we aim to win the World Cup.
“The United States, Germany and host nation France are regarded as the three favourites but I personally think any team could win this year.”
Endo was a surprise selection having only made her international debut against the United States in February.
“I did not choose by age,” said Takakura. “I selected players purely by their performances on the pitch.
“She is a leftsided player and her scoring skills are outstanding. She has good physique, speed and I expect her to score and make plenty of chances for others.”
Mana Iwabuchi, named the tournament’s most valuable player when the Nadeshiko won the Asian Cup last year, was another of the six forwards included in the squad of 23.
Kumi Yokoyama, who scored the winner in last year’s Asian Cup final, Yuika Sugawara, Rikako Kobayashi and Riko Ueki were the others selected but there was no place for Tanaka, who has scored 14 goals in 24 starts for Japan.
“Women’s soccer has changed quite a lot,” Takakura added.
“I chose versatile forwards who could maximise their abilities and offensive performances whatever the combination might be.”
Experienced midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi, a member of the squad that won the trophy in 2011, was also included despite concerns over her fitness after she suffered a serious knee injury last year.
“Our team doctor has advised me that she will be able to play,” Takakura said.
Japan will play a final warm-up against Spain in France on June 2 and have been grouped with England, Scotland and Argentina for the opening stage of the World Cup.
Goalkeepers – Sakiko Ikeda, Ayaka Yamashita, Chika Hirao
Defenders – Aya Sameshima, Rumi Utsugi, Saki Kumagai, Shiori Miyake, Risa Shimizu, Nana Ichise, Asato Miyagawa, Moeka Minami
Midfielders – Mizuho Sakaguchi, Emi Nakajima, Yuka Momiki, Yui Hasegawa, Hina Sugita, Narumi Miura
Forwards – Yuika Sugasawa, Mana Iwabuchi, Kumi Yokoyama, Rikako Kobayashi, Riko Ueki, Jun Endo
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)