AL AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki is hoping to carry his recent club form onto the international stage when Japan takes on the United Arab Emirates in Thursday’s final-round World Cup qualifier in Al Ain.
Okazaki is back in favor at the Foxes and his typically energetic performances have helped them turn a corner since the sacking of Italian coach Claudio Ranieri.
Okazaki has started Leicester’s last five games in all competitions, four of them wins, including a 2-1 defeat of Sevilla that secured the Premier League title holders a place in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
“The turning point (at Leicester) came two or three weeks ago. The team started playing a more aggressive style from the front and that is why I fitted back into the team,” Okazaki told reporters after Japan trained for the first time on Sunday after arriving in the United Arab Emirates.
“Physically and mentally, I am confident I can take my form onto the world stage. As a forward, I am not scoring goals but I feel I know what I have to do to help the team win.”
Okazaki is among a number of veterans in the current national team that no longer command a regular place in the starting lineup.
But Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic emphasized the importance of experience when he named his squad for the qualifiers against United Arab Emirates and the March 28 game against Thailand, sticking with out-of-favor AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda and also recalling Gamba Osaka utility man Yasuyuki Konno.
Although the goals have dried up for both club and country — he is still one short of the 50-goal milestone for the national team, having not scored since a 7-2 win over Bulgaria last June — Okazaki believes he still has a contribution to make.
“What this team needs is goals and it is what I also need to add to my game for my own future and to help Japan qualify for the World Cup,” said Okazaki.
“I say the same thing every time, but I am proud to be selected for the national team and I keep getting called up because of what I have achieved with my club.
“We need to have cool heads when we are playing away from home and need to have players that will stand up and fight. That is where experience really counts.”
Japan suffered a controversial 2-1 defeat to United Arab Emirates in its opening match in the final round of qualifiers in September last year when Takuma Asano had a legitimate goal that would have leveled the match 2-2 ruled out.
Japan reach the halfway stage of the final round of qualifiers level on 10 points with Group B leader Saudi Arabia. Third-place Australia and the fourth-place UAE both have nine points, with Iraq on three and bottom side Thailand on one.
“We made life difficult for ourselves by losing the first game against UAE but came back from that and we are sort of back at the starting point again,” said Okazaki. “So are we going to make it a successful story or are we going to repeat the same thing? It is really up to us.
“Thailand have showed how well they can play by drawing with Australia and we can’t let up in either of these two upcoming games.”
Twelve players took part in Sunday’s training session, with others arriving later in the evening, including captain Makoto Hasebe, who has made the trip despite his club Eintracht Frankfurt saying he will need to undergo knee surgery in the coming days.
FC Tokyo midfielder Yojiro Takahagi, called up for the first time by Halilhodzic, skipped training and worked out at the team hotel due to a bruised toe.