SAPPORO – Brazilian-born left winger Alex Santos is eager to help Japan beat Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a match that holds extra significance for the Urawa Reds star.
Having lost 1-0 to the Saudis away in September, Japan is three points adrift of the Gulf side and needs to win by two goals or more in its final qualifier for next year’s Asian Cup finals to claim Group A bragging rights.
Both teams have already booked their spots in the finals but Alex wants Japan to wrap up 2006 on a winning note in a match that would see him become the only outfield player to appear in all 19 of the Asian champion’s games this year.
“We lost in the last game to Saudi Arabia. We are at home this time and pride is at stake,” said Alex. “For me this is a special game. I want us to finish the qualifiers as group winners.”
A firm favorite with former national team coach Zico, Alex’s position in the team has never been under threat this year and the 29-year-old has completed 90 minutes in all but four of his 18 appearances in 2006.
He set up Japan’s only goal at this summer’s World Cup finals for Keiji Tamada in the 4-1 defeat to Brazil and is one of only six players from the World Cup squad retained by new coach Ivica Osim.
With a new coach comes new vision, new tactics and, inevitably, wholesale changes to the squad.
When Zico took the helm, only Koji Nakata from the 2002 World Cup team was given an extended run in the new team (13 straight games).
Alex helped his new coach make a winning start to his reign by scoring both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly in August.
Now Santos just hopes he can maintain his place in the side for the Asian Cup and beyond.
“I know that I have got be ready for whatever comes and have to stay on my toes if I want to play next year and beyond,” he said.
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