Maya Yoshida says Takefusa Kubo is key to Japan's future

Japan captain Maya Yoshida believes the level of competition in Asian football is increasing but says young players like Takefusa Kubo can lead the national team into the future.

Yoshida, who currently captains Japan, is preparing for the restart of the Serie A season next weekend. On loan from Southampton since January, Yoshida is focused on helping Sampdoria stave off relegation.

The 32-year-old centre-back continues to be an influential figure for the national team and was part of the side that lost to Qatar in the final of last year's AFC Asian Cup.

Japan have traditionally been heavyweights in the continent but Yoshida is aware that recent results illustrate that the gap between the powerhouses Japan and South Korea and teams like Malaysia and Vietnam is diminishing each year.

"I think the difference in level is getting smaller," Yoshida told ESPN in an exclusive interview. " ...We played against Vietnam at the last Asian Cup and we won [1-0], but I feel we would have won much more easily seven to eight years ago. Right now, it's tougher.

"For example, Thailand are spending a lot of money and they got a Japanese manager who led us at the last World Cup (Akira Nishino)."

Following the 2018 World Cup -- where Japan were lost 3-2 to Belgium in the Round of 16 despite leading 2-0 until the 69th minute -- a host of key players retired from international football including former skipper Makoto Hasebe and star playmaker Keisuke Honda.

Young players like Takumi Minamino, Ritsu Doan and Takehiro Tomiyasu have come to the fore, while prodigious talent Takefusa Kubo earned a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid last summer at just 18.

"They are the biggest future of Japanese football, as well as Asian football," added Yoshida. "Especially Takefusa who can already speak Spanish very well, which is a huge advantage playing in Spain or Europe. We didn't have this before so this is a new generation.

"There will be huge expectations on his shoulders; not just him but also other new talented players. With this pressure, they still have to play well for their clubs and the national team as well."