Centurion Okazaki looking for balance after win over Syria


Staff Writer

National team striker Shinji Okazaki thanked his teammates for helping him reach 100 caps but warned the hard work is still to come after Japan topped its 2018 World Cup second-round qualifying group with a 5-0 win over Syria on Tuesday.

Japan made it through to the final round of Asian qualifiers without conceding a single goal after recording a perfect eighth clean sheet against the Syrians at Saitama Stadium.

A 17th-minute own goal gave Japan — which had already booked its place in the final round — a precarious lead until Shinji Kagawa made the result safe midway through the second half, and late goals from Keisuke Honda, Genki Haraguchi and another for Kagawa burnished the final score.

Okazaki failed to add to his 48 international goals on a night when he became only the fifth player to make 100 appearances for Japan, but the Leicester City striker was more concerned about the overall balance of the team after Syria came close to scoring on several second-half occasions.

“I have to thank a lot of people. It’s not possible to get to 100 caps on your own, and that’s a thought I always carry with me” said Okazaki, who was given the captain’s armband for the game.

“There were a lot of times tonight when we strayed too far forward and allowed our opponents to create chances. The plan was to try not to sit back and to keep attacking, but now we need to work on how to do that without giving the opposition big chances.

“When you play against Asian teams and you’re winning by only one goal — tonight we got away with it but against stronger opposition you can’t take so many risks.”

Japan takes its place in the April 12 draw for the final Asian qualifying round with a place in a sixth-straight World Cup up for grabs. The 12 teams will be split into two groups, with the top two from each sealing a berth in Russia and the two third-place teams facing each other for the right to take on a North American team in a playoff.

Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic declared himself satisfied with his team’s progress but warned improvements must be made ahead of the final round.

“The first stage is now over, and the next stage will be more difficult,” said the Bosnian. “This team still has room to develop in every department — tactically, mentally, physically and technically. I would also like us to improve in front of goal because I can’t believe how many chances we created tonight.

“When you are building a house, first you need to lay the foundations. After that you build the first floor and then the second floor. We have built the first floor and next comes the second. The World Cup is the third floor. But if you don’t build a solid foundation and there’s an earthquake, it all comes crashing down.”

Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa kept his sixth straight clean sheet in World Cup qualifiers to set a new national team record, and the 29-year-old credited his teammates for staying calm in the face of Syrian pressure.

“It’s great that we were able to get through the second round without conceding any goals,” said Urawa Reds goalkeeper Nishikawa. “We were actually able to turn times when we were in a pinch into chances and goals of our own, and we kept our concentration and didn’t concede.

“We gave our opponents chances in the second half and that is something for the team to work on, but there were also a lot of good things about our performance and the fact that we didn’t concede was excellent.”

Tuesday’s game marked almost a year to the day since Halilhodzic took charge of Japan for the first time in a friendly win over Tunisia. Goalscorer Haraguchi believes the team is beginning to live up to the manager’s expectations.

“We were able to play with a high tempo right from the start tonight,” said Hertha Berlin forward Haraguchi, who came on as a 58th-minute substitute when Hotaru Yamaguchi was stretchered off with a broken nose and eye socket after a shocking challenge by Syria’s Khaled Almbayed.

“That’s the kind of fast-paced game the manager is looking for. We need to try to keep this going.”

Syria also qualified for the final qualifying round as one of the four best second-place teams from the eight groups, and manager Fajer Ebrahim could have no complaints at finishing second behind Japan.

“I think it’s normal for Japan to qualify, because Japan are one of the best teams in Asia,” he said. “But for Syria, this qualification is very great.”