It would be unthinkable for Japan to begin its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with anything other than a win at home to Singapore next Tuesday, but manager Vahid Halilhodzic will be looking for more from his team than just three points.
Japan takes on Iraq in a friendly in Yokohama on Thursday before kicking off its bid to reach a sixth straight World Cup against Singapore in Saitama five days later. Halilhodzic has only been in charge for two games since taking over from Javier Aguirre in March, but impressive friendly wins over Tunisia and Uzbekistan have whetted the appetite for more.
After a stop-start 2-0 victory over the North Africans, Japan cut loose with a 5-1 thrashing of the Uzbeks, playing with the kind of zest and fluency that was largely absent from January’s dismal Asian Cup campaign. New faces like Takashi Usami and Kengo Kawamata gave the team an injection of fresh blood, while Halilhodzic charmed the public with a bravado touchline performance that suggests the next three years should be an interesting ride.
After the fun and games of the manager’s welcome party, however, comes the long grind of World Cup qualification. An opening group that contains Singapore, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Syria should give Japan few problems, but the team has endured a bruising 12 months and Halilhodzic’s first priority will be to restore damaged confidence.
“I want to instill a culture of winning,” the Bosnian said as he announced his squad for the two games last week, and a tougher mentality will indeed be required if limp exits from the Asian Cup and last summer’s World Cup in Brazil are anything to go by.
Halilhodzic will at least be heartened by signs of a return to form from one of the players who looked most affected at both those tournaments. Attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa finished the Bundesliga season strongly with Borussia Dortmund after appearing desperately short of confidence for much of the year, and the 26-year-old insists he is ready to meet the challenge head-on.
“The manager demands a lot of us, and he’s very straight-talking when it comes to pointing out problems,” Kagawa was quoted as saying in Saturday’s Nikkan Sports. “That’s as it should be. I want to be able to meet those demands.”
Kagawa should face plenty of competition for a starting place should his revival prove short-lived, however, with Usami and Yoshinori Muto in particular enjoying a rich vein of form in the J. League. Halilhodzic made an early pledge not to pick players based on reputation alone, and the fact that he named completely different lineups for his two games in charge suggests he intends to stay true to his word.
That would be in keeping with the positive early impression the 63-year-old has made in Japan, with even his faux-pas of disclosing a list of players he judged to be overweight in May failing to dampen the feel-good factor.
Like all managers, however, results are what Halilhodzic will ultimately be judged on. The World Cup qualifying round beginning next week is unlikely to deliver any kind of verdict, but the gentle start does allow him crucial time to make his mark before the real challenges begin.
Halilhodzic has already laid down a marker with his grand entrance. Now it is time to build on it.