Saitama – National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic has challenged Japan to make it through the second round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers without conceding a goal after claiming a seventh clean sheet in seven games in Thursday’s 5-0 win over Afghanistan.
Group E leader Japan takes on Syria at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday in its final second-round fixture with its place in the final round already confirmed.
Syria beat Cambodia 6-0 on Thursday to stay only a point behind Japan in second place, but results around the continent combined to ensure Halilhodzic’s side will at least advance as one of the four best runners-up from the eight qualification groups.
Halilhodzic’s ambitions extend further than just squeezing into the final round, however, and the Bosnian is urging his team to finish the campaign in style after a five-star performance against Afghanistan.
“That was a truly beautiful win,” Halilhodzic said after Thursday’s game at Saitama Stadium. “At the beginning we were passing the ball a bit too quickly, and some of the players were trying to do too much. But overall our team played phenomenally well, with a new system which I had never tried before with them.
“Now we must prepare for the next game against an even tougher opponent. We must treat this as a final and go all out for the win. But not only the win — I want to win and finish this group without conceding any goals.”
Japan has dropped points in only one of its seven qualifying matches so far, with an opening 0-0 home draw against Singapore the only black mark.
Thursday’s game threatened to turn into a similarly frustrating experience until Shinji Okazaki broke the deadlock in the 43rd minute, paving the way for second-half goals from Hiroshi Kiyotake, Maya Yoshida, Mu Kanazaki and an own goal by Afghanistan’s Sharif Mohammad.
“Our opponents tired in the second half, but getting that first goal at the end of the first half was very important,” said Kiyotake, who finished off a passing move involving Makoto Hasebe and Kanazaki to score in the 58th minute.
“If we hadn’t scored that goal, I don’t know how the second half would have turned out. That goal opened the door to our second-half performance.”
Halilhodzic used the match to try out a new tactical system, using Kanazaki and Okazaki as twin strikers in front of a midfield diamond.
The manager insisted that more time in training would make the new formation more effective against Syria, but felt confident that his players could make it work against the Afghans.
“I felt our players had the necessary edge in terms of quality,” he said. “Of course you have to respect Afghanistan, but this was a chance to try something new. Maybe it’s not the right thing to do in a World Cup qualifier but we also had some players arriving late, and there were several factors in this decision.
“I could see the aggression and the spirit and I thought the goals would come. Maybe the players were beginning to doubt themselves, but in the second half Afghanistan tired and we got the goals. Today’s match has really confirmed my determination to make this team succeed.”
Japan beat Afghanistan 6-0 in the away leg played on neutral ground in Tehran last September, and Southampton defender Yoshida was confident of another big win.
“We knew from the away game that we would be able to push our full-backs up, play with a lot of attacking players and leave the minimum number of players in defense,” said Yoshida, who headed home direct from a corner in the 74th minute. “I don’t think it was a risk.
“Our opponents were holding out in the first half and it was very difficult to break them down. But once we got the second goal, their organization gave way completely. Once we scored two or three we talked about going for six, but it’s not a bad result.”
News began to filter through after the game of the death of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff, and Japan striker Mike Havenaar, born in Hiroshima to Dutch parents, was quick to pay tribute to the master.
“When I was a kid, I used to insist on wearing the No. 14 shirt,” Havenaar, who came on as a second-half substitute, said in reference to Cruyff’s iconic shirt number. “It’s sad news. He had such a big impact on Dutch soccer.”