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Gambler Halilhodzic hoping chips keep falling his way

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National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic’s willingness to take risks has worked out well in recent months, and Japan will be hoping that his instincts continue to pay off in its upcoming World Cup qualifier against Iraq.

Japan takes on Syria in Tokyo next Wednesday in a tune-up for the June 13 clash against the Iraqis in neutral Tehran, with Halilhodzic’s side sitting pretty on top of qualifying Group B on goal difference ahead of Saudi Arabia. A win over Iraq would move Japan tantalizingly close to a spot at Russia 2018, although remaining fixtures against third-place Australia and the Saudis mean the battle for qualification could go all the way to the wire.

“We’re in a good position now but thinking that just because we’ve come through adversity we can afford to slack off is strictly forbidden,” Halilhodzic said as he named his 25-man squad last week. “When you consider that we’re playing the Saudis last, we have to try to win and wrap up qualification as soon as possible.”

Japan has recovered from a rocky start to the campaign to lead the group in some style, with Halilhodzic earning personal vindication with a number of audacious but ultimately successful decisions.

In November, with his back against the wall following a string of disappointing results, the Bosnian dropped out-of-form stalwarts Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for a vital home game against the Saudis, yet still came away with a 2-1 win. His faith in young attacker Yuya Kubo — at Honda’s expense — was then rewarded with two electrifying performances in March, as Japan moved top of the group with victories over the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

Kubo’s brilliant recent form with Belgian side Gent makes Halilhodzic’s decision to throw him in at the deep end seem obvious in retrospect. But the 23-year-old was by no means a sure thing when he made his debut in November, and the manager will be hoping to uncover further diamonds against Syria next week.

Halilhodzic raised eyebrows with his call-up of defensive midfielder Kohei Kato, who currently plays for Bulgarian side Beroe Stara Zagora and lists stints in Argentina, Montenegro and Poland on his resume.

“It’s not a surprise,” Halilhodzic said of his squad selection, which also includes fellow new faces Tomoya Ugajin of Urawa Reds and Genta Miura of Gamba Osaka. “This is the standard. Even with my own children, I never give them presents unconditionally. It’s up to them to go and take it.”

Kato, who has never played in the J. League first division, is practically unknown in Japan. But having once been confronted by a fan armed with a hunting rifle in his team’s changing room in Argentina, and having taken a 30-hour bus ride back from a failed trial with a Swiss club in order to save money during his days in Montenegro, the 27-year-old is unlikely to be fazed.

“People looking at me might think I’m a late starter, but for me it’s all been vital experience,” Kato said after joining up with the squad earlier this week. “My skill is in adapting to my environment.”

Such mental toughness will be welcome on a team that has looked suspiciously flaky in the past, and a poor playing surface in Tehran is likely to make the Iraq game no place for the faint-hearted. Japan will need to roll its sleeves up and prepare for a fierce physical contest, and Halilhodzic intends to choose his starting line-up accordingly.

“We can’t play lots of short passes,” he said. “There will be lots of aerial battles and long balls, so we need aggressive players who can win the ball. I’ve chosen players who are prepared to fight.”

Given his recent track record, who would bet against Halilhodzic getting it right again?