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Halilhodzic looking to stoke competition in World Cup qualifiers

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Japan should have little trouble clinching its place in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers when it faces Afghanistan and Syria over the coming week, but manager Vahid Halilhodzic will nonetheless be looking to lay down a marker for the year ahead.

Group E leader Japan faces Afghanistan in Saitama on Thursday before squaring off against second-place Syria at the same venue five days later. The fact that Syria remains only a point behind Japan means their showdown next Tuesday will likely decide the group winner, but with the best four second-place teams from the eight groups progressing to the next round, Japan still has margin for error.

That would certainly not make defeat acceptable in Halilhodzic’s eyes, of course, and the Bosnian will be hoping to build on a strong finish to last year after a rocky patch over the summer. Japan has yet to concede a single goal during the qualification campaign, but Halilhodzic is keen to make sure his players do not take anything for granted.

“There are players who have been in this squad for a long time and have created an atmosphere that makes them think they’ll still be in the squad for the next 50 years,” Halilhodzic said when announcing his squad last week. “I want them to have more ambition, more desire to win. That’s the only way that Japan will improve.”

Halilhodzic will certainly be helped by the fine form of striker Shinji Okazaki, who has played an influential role in Leicester City’s remarkable push for the Premier League title. Okazaki will become the first Japanese striker to reach 100 caps if he features in both matches over the coming week, and the 29-year-old is hoping to make use of what he has learned in England.

“At Leicester, each player is giving everything they’ve got and it feels like we’re all on the same page,” Okazaki said earlier this week. “When you’re all in harmony, when every player is giving everything for the team — that’s the way Japan can become stronger.”

Kawasaki Frontale forward Yu Kobayashi gives Halilhodzic further options in attack, while the return of 194-cm striker Mike Havenaar could help address the team’s inability to convert set pieces into goals.

Such weaknesses will certainly be tested more over the coming year than they were during Halilhodzic’s first 12 months in charge, when Japan played only four teams in the top 90 of FIFA’s rankings in 13 games under the Bosnian. The coming week’s opponents, Afghanistan and Syria, are ranked 151st and 123rd, respectively.

That, unfortunately, is the nature of early Asian World Cup qualification rounds, making it all the more important that the team maintains its edge before the final round begins later this year. Japan’s quarterfinal loss to the United Arab Emirates at last year’s Asian Cup was a reminder that competition for World Cup places is growing in the region, and a sluggish start is not likely to go unpunished.

“The manager says he is satisfied with the first year but thinks the team can improve a lot more,” said captain Makoto Hasebe. “I want to respond to that. We need competition within the team, and the players coming through have to push the players who have been here for years.”

Halilhodzic has certainly been true to his word in selecting a series of unexpected starting lineups so far, and it is anyone’s guess which players he chooses for the two games over the coming week.

Whoever lines up for Japan, don’t expect them to show any mercy to Afghanistan and Syria.