HANOI — Ivica Osim has thrown a protective arm around his Japan players ahead of their Asian Cup semifinal, saying he will take the flak if the defending champions lose to Saudi Arabia.

The national team coach’s cryptic comments throughout the finals have left some reporters scratching their heads, but the Bosnian was crystal clear on Tuesday over who will shoulder the blame if the favorites fail to win their last-four match and go on to claim a third straight continental crown.

“If I pick tired players, it is my responsibility. If I don’t substitute players, it is my responsibility. I take all responsibility for the result,” Osim said. “But I can’t promise Japan will win.”

Osim intimated he would name an unchanged starting XI for the fourth game in a row to further protect his players in what he said would be a tough test at My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi on Wednesday evening.

“If we change our lineup and lose the game, then it may look like the players are responsible and I don’t want to put that on them,” Osim said.

“Saudi Arabia are well organized and their players will be highly motivated for the match. They are very aggressive, play modern football and they have players who will be very difficult for Japan to deal with.”

Japan beat the Saudis 3-1 in their last Asian Cup qualifier in Sapporo in November 2006 to avenge a 1-0 defeat in Jeddah two months earlier, but Helio Anjos, Saudi Arabia’s Brazilian coach, called those results meaningless.

“We respect Japan a lot, but we are not afraid of them,” said Anjos, who was appointed after the qualifiers finished. “The last result between us and Japan doesn’t mean a thing.”

The Saudis have had less time to prepare for the semifinal after beating Uzbekistan 2-1 in the quarterfinals on Sunday evening in Jakarta and then traveling for 12 hours to Hanoi. Japan stayed put after beating Australia 4-3 on penalties in their last-eight match at My Dinh Stadium on Saturday.

Anjos refused to dwell on any advantage the Japanese may have from their lack of travel, although he made it clear the Saudis go into the match as underdogs.

“We have had a problem with preparation, but we are not using this as an excuse and we are preparing the best we can,” said Anjos. “Japan, though, is the powerhouse of Asian football and they are the best team in the tournament and the continent.

“But I’m not surprised by our progress. When you think about what you can achieve in the tournament you allow yourself to dream and we want to progress further.”

The other semifinal earlier Wednesday evening sees South Korea take on Iraq in Kuala Lumpur, with the final in Jakarta on Sunday.

Japan playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, who played in the 1-0 victory over the Saudis in the 2000 Asian Cup final in Lebanon, called for his players to follow his example and keep focused.

“I want to play aggressively and aim to create a lot of chances for my teammates,” said the Celtic midfielder. “We want to go all the way, but there are a lot of things we need to do between now and the end of the tournament.

“This match against the Saudis is obviously very important and we need to keep mentally strong.”

Yuji Nakazawa, who scored the winning spot-kick against Australia, said he would hate to see the semifinal again decided by the lottery of penalties.

“No way, I’m not even thinking about it,” said Nakazawa after training Monday evening. “I don’t want to have to play another 120 minutes, it’s far too exhausting.”

Both Japan and Saudi Arabia are looking for a record fourth Asian title. The Saudis won in 1984, ’88 and ’96 and Japan won in ’92, 2000 and 2004.

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