Ange Postecoglou’s arrival at Celtic in the summer of 2021 hailed an extended period of introspection amongst the Hoops’ faithful.
Having missed out on the league title, denying them the much-coveted 10-in-a-row, to Steven Gerrard’s imperious Rangers side in 2020/21, Celtic supporters questioned the appointment of the relatively unknown Australian.
‘A reckless gamble. Really the best we could get? Doubt it. Board embarrassing themselves again,’ one supporter wrote on social media.
Celtic’s Japanese trio of Kyogo Furuhashi, Reo Hatate and Daizen Maeda at Parkhead last term
Fast forward 10 months and Celtic had waltzed to the title playing attractive football and having qualified for the Champions League automatically for the first time in years.
A key part of last season’s success was owed to Postecoglou’s knowledge of what some saw as unusual markets for Scottish sides to be dipping into.
Indeed, one person in the know told Sportsmail that was a significant reason for Celtic hiring the Australian.
Last summer, Postecoglou brought in Kyogo Furuhashi from Vissel Kobe – a player who almost immediately endeared himself to the Celtic faithful. A quick and nimble forward player, Kyogo scored eight Scottish Premiership goals in 15 appearances last season.
By Boxing Day, Kyogo had 16 goals in all competitions – including the winner at Hampden during the Scottish League Cup final – but, away at St Johnstone having just returned from injury, he broke down and was not seen until March.
He played once more, ironically against the same side, before the league’s annual top-six split. Four goals in six matches after the split reminded Celtic of what they had missed.
Maeda celebrates with team-mate Aaron Mooy after scoring his side’s sixth against Hibernian
By that time, two of his fellow Japanese international team-mates had been signed and their impact was significant enough from January that by the time Kyogo returned, the title was within touching distance.
Reo Hatate and Daizen Maeda, signed from Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F. Marinos respectively, arrived with Celtic flying and having both played full campaigns of J League football.
It was testament to their professionalism and fitness that they maintained high levels of performance until April, when their showings tailed off slightly, largely owing to having ploughed through a season in essence a year and half in length.
With all three having appeared in Japan’s most recent squad for the internationals in September, it is expected they will all be part of Hajime Moriyasu’s 26-man squad for the World Cup in Qatar.
This is a lowdown on what observers might expect to see from Celtic’s fabulous Japanese trio in November and December.
Japan head into this World Cup having appeared at every edition since 1998.
Since that appearance in France at the end of the 1990s, the nation has come on leaps and bounds in terms of its footballing development and heads to this World Cup with ambitions to emerge from the group – as they did in 2010 and 2018, most recently.
Qualifying for the tournament with a game to spare after a dramatic victory over Australia in Sydney, Japan have been drawn with Germany, Costa Rica and Spain.
Many see it as the group of death, with both Germany and Spain, who have won two of the last three World Cups between them, coming into the tournament in ominous form.
So what, exactly, do Japan have in Kyogo, Maeda and Hatate that can hurt their three opponents?
The first thing that should be noted, as has been pointed out by their club manager on various occasions, that they are all wildly different players and seemingly different personalities too.
Kyogo announced himself to Celtic supporters with two goals in front of a rapturous Hampden
‘It’s a bit lazy for us all to say, I’ve just brought in four Japanese. I’ve brought in four quality players who I think can add to what we’re doing here,’ Postecoglou responded when asked about the four Japanese players he had signed as a collective back in January.
‘They have different personalities and they’ve had different career paths so far. They each will offer something different to the club.’
Indeed, the three – with Yosuke Ideguchi, the fourth, excluded owing to injuries – are not thought to be enormously close at Celtic.
They are seldom seen out in public together and their personalities are different, with Kyogo slightly more integrated into the wider Celtic squad simply for having been here for longer.
The Celtic forward celebrates with his first trophy at the club after winning the League Cup
Born in Nara, the forward almost gave up on football at the age of 22 after struggling to crack it at the professional level.
‘I was ready to give up. I’d been playing since I was five and did okay at student level. In my final year at university, I had trials at different teams but I couldn’t find a team,’ he revealed in an interview in the summer.
Having left Vissel Kobe, where he played alongside Andres Iniesta, Kyogo wound up at Celtic where he has emerged as one of the club’s foremost stars.
The supporters’ song for him, which has been copied by Liverpool’s terraces among others, is testament to just how much he is loved at Parkhead.
Injury blighted his first campaign at the club – after injuring himself on Boxing Day he wasn’t seen again until the spring
Kyogo is the most outgoing, again largely because his grasp of the English language is best.
This September, he conducted his first full interview in English – a fact that has been pointed to as testament to his character, application and willingness to learn and immerse himself.
Kyogo’s influence in his first few months of last season were evidenced no better in his performance in the League Cup final in December. 1-0 down to an early second half Hibernian goal, Kyogo scored twice to win the trophy for Celtic and give Postecoglou an early taste of success at the club.
His performance that day gave Celtic supporters, and indeed the wider football world, a closer look at his intelligent striker play. His run to peel off the Hibs defender and slot home calmly when chaos seemingly reigned all around him with Celtic 1-0 down showed a temperament key to any top level striker’s game.
Likely competing for a spot in the starting XI with Ayase Ueda, Kyogo can play across the wide areas but is most comfortable through the middle, where he has largely been used in green and white.
Kyogo played 45 minutes in the most recent internationals and looks set to play an important part in the squad
His ability to move across the forward line provides Japan with the sort of versatility that has been so key at World Cup tournaments down the years. How the squad sizes increasing to 26 from 23 changes that remains to seen.
Particularly against Germany, who often have played kamikaze football under Hansi Flick, characterised by his insistence on an extremely high defensive line, Kyogo’s speed in behind could prove a real asset to Japan.
In terms of stardom and likely players to light up the World Cup, Kyogo seems the likeliest candidate. Celtic were said to have relented on a few offers for the player in the summer and there is a chance, particularly with the club unlikely to emerge out of their group in the Champions League, he could depart in January.
Playing in Japan’s goalless draw with Ecuador in September, the forward worked tirelessly but at times appeared unsure of himself in the final third.
It is a question for those close to him and the national team to ponder: with lots going through him at Celtic, how are Japan going to get the best out of him when he won’t necessarily be the focal point of their attack?
Kyogo and Harry Kewell share a handshake as Celtic prepared for a Champions League tie
In January, Kyogo was joined by Maeda and Hatate at Celtic with the two bringing some much needed impetus to a squad looking to shake off Rangers.
The signing of both players as soon as the January window opened represented something of a change in strategy for Celtic.
In the past, they had been known for waiting until the end of the window to move. But Maeda and Hatate arrived almost as soon as the Christmas decorations were being packed up and were ready to hit the ground running as the festive break wound down.
Maeda’s story to professional football, like Kyogo, is one of toil and hard work with plenty of setbacks. Indeed, his rise to the top of the European game was perhaps unexpected.
Maeda is a player who works extremely hard for the team and possesses great pace over short distances
An enormous baseball fan, asked about the Champions League earlier this year with Celtic set to qualify automatically, he admitted he had never watched it.
Nevertheless, commitment to the sport and the sides he plays within is not something that can be questioned of Maeda. A hardworking wide player who can play up front, he scored within four minutes of his Celtic debut against Hibernian.
Eight goals followed in Celtic’s march to the title.
It is no secret that Maeda has found it more difficult this time around. Probably most technically deficient out of all three, he has struggled in Europe in particular this season with some Celtic supporters questioning his viability in the high-pressure moments.
Having been in the most recent squad, his lack of form this term does not look likely to cost him a place in Qatar.
The wide player has struggled this season but is someone that can hurt teams when on song
High-profile misses occurred in the Champions League against Real Madrid, with the sides locked at 0-0, and against Shakhtar Donetsk in Warsaw.
Addressing calls for him to be dropped, his club manager told the media: ‘He does put in an enormous work-rate. We felt from last week their right-hand side can be a threat going forward and I thought his defensive work was outstanding and that helps us as a team.
‘But he’s got to learn the other side of the game which is really important in terms of finishing and the end product.’
Maeda’s strength is his pace over short distances, again something that can surely be utilised against sides likely to push up and pin Japan back, while his work-rate has been described by one individual as ‘something that needs to be seen to be believed’.
Maeda scored minutes into his Celtic debut back in January and enjoyed a solid second half of last season having arrived from Japan off the back of a great goalscoring season
The 24-year-old’s work ethic makes him a valuable asset for any team, and perhaps explains why Postecoglou himself has signed him twice, the second time for £2m from the J League for the Scottish giants.
Hailing from Osaka, Maeda has in the past been referred to as a ‘machine’, by former coach John Hutchinson, who worked with Postecoglou for a time and now works in Texas.
While Arthur Papas, another Australian coach with connections to Japan, said he has physical abilities beyond those of most footballers.
Those abilities were reflected in him finishing top scorer in the J League in his final season in Japan, with 23 goals.
A goal over the weekend in Celtic’s 6-1 drubbing of Hibs is likely to provide him a timely boost
Hatate is a supremely technically gifted player. Hutchinson, who praised Maeda’s work rate, previously told Sportsmail’s John McGarry that he was shocked he hadn’t been plucked out of Japan before Celtic came in for him.
A midfielder who is extremely versatile, Hatate has primarily been deployed in attacking midfield areas for Celtic but he has been known to play as far back as left-back.
His versatility, like Maeda and indeed Kyogo, will give him an advantage, it is thought, in regards to the final squad.
Rather worryingly, for him however, was that he did not play a single minute in the most recent internationals against the USA and Ecuador. Kyogo played 45 minutes while Maeda started against the USA at centre foward, unusually.
Reo Hatate is one of few Celtic players that appeared comfortable in the Champions League
Similarly to his two Celtic team-mates, Hatate’s path to football has not been a smooth one. He was a late entrant into professional football and was playing at university level while becoming a trained P.E. teacher.
Spotted by Kawasaki Frontale at the age of 20, he enjoyed an unorthodox start to life as a professional footballer having seemingly skipped the rigours of academy youth football on his journey to the top.
His case, in particular, seems a lesson in refusing to give in and to keep on pursuing ones dream. At the outset of the last World Cup, it is doubtful many in the Japan national set up had even heard of Hatate, he now will head to Qatar having held his own for 60 minutes against Real Madrid’s midfield containing Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
The midfielder is a ‘classy’ player who could potentially explode into global consciousness this winter
Hatate, more than the other two, appears to reflect the fact that there are players out there untouched by the giants of the game but can cut it at the really top level.
His ability in the centre of the park provided Celtic with control when he arrived and, unlike Maeda, has maintained his quality into his first full season at the club.
While he provides the goals from midfield, scoring four times – and assisting a further three times – in his first 11 games for Celtic last season.
Described to Sportsmail as a ‘classy’ player, it would be no surprise to see Hatate impress on the grandest of stages this winter.
The midfielder is a fans favourite at Parkhead and it seems baffling to many that he did not play in the most recent internationals