YOKOHAMA — National team manager Takeshi Okada insists there will be no let-up from his side against Qatar in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier despite having already secured safe passage to South Africa.
Japan beat Uzbekistan 1-0 in Tashkent last Saturday to become the first team to reach the finals, effectively rendering the two remaining qualifiers against the Gulf side and Australia dead rubbers.
But Okada is of a different opinion, throwing down the gauntlet to those fringe players who impressed at the recent Kirin Cup thrashings of Chile and Belgium to use the game at International Stadium Yokohama to make their mark again.
“The Kirin Cup was a good experience for the players who came in for those who were injured, and they took their chance and gave some good performances,” said Okada, who will watch from the stands and hand pitchside control to coach Takeshi Oki while he serves a one-match ban for being sent off against the Uzbeks.
“At the moment I’m in a situation where I have to make changes to the team, so again this is a good opportunity for the players coming in.
“We have been showing some signs of tiredness but the players’ motivation is high for this game. We’ve qualified for the World Cup, but this is still a competitive game at home and we want to win it.”
Left back Yuto Nagatomo and midfielder Yasuhito Endo have been ruled out through injury, while Makoto Hasebe is suspended following his red card for an elbow late in Saturday’s win in Tashkent.
There should be a place for playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, however, who has assured the manager of his fitness despite concerns over a groin injury.
Endo and Hasebe’s absence may again open the door for VVV Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda, and striker Shinji Okazaki should keep his spot after scoring four goals in his last three games, including the matchwinner in Uzbekistan.
After an impressive string of recent results, Okada is hoping for more of the same.
“There are lots of things that I want to see,” he said. “I want to see the things we have been doing well recently, and I believe the players can show me that.
“Everything we have been doing has been geared toward getting to the best four in the world. We have been working steadily toward that, so we’re not going to drastically alter anything now. We just have to refine the little things.”
Okada’s mantra of reaching the World Cup semifinals has grown louder since clinching qualification, but Honda insists the players are happy to shoulder the pressure that goes with it.
“There is pressure, but if you are a professional you have to handle it,” he said. “It’s difficult but it’s not something to get stressed about.
“It’s positive to have that kind of pressure. Mr Okada is very good at giving the players confidence.”
Qatar has an outside chance of finishing third in Group 1 behind Japan and Australia, but must win and hope Bahrain loses against the Socceroos to stand any chance.
Qatar manager Bruno Metsu, who is missing star striker Sebastian Quintana through suspension, is aware there is no margin for error.
“Japan have already qualified but we have not, so this is very stressful for us,” he said. “We need a result, and we played well against Australia (a 0-0 draw last Saturday). We want to make a positive impression here.”