Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Japan keen to work off frustration in World Cup qualifiers

by Andrew McKirdy

Japan heads into this week’s World Cup qualifiers only in second place in Group E, but Vahid Halilhodzic’s side will be hungry to set the record straight against opponents Singapore and Cambodia.

Japan takes on Singapore away on Thursday before traveling to Cambodia to play its final fixture of the year five days later, with the Samurai Blue trailing group leader Syria by two points but with a game in hand. Japan has gone on to win three straight qualifiers with 12 goals scored and none conceded since drawing its opener 0-0 at home to Singapore in June, but the frustration of that stalemate still eats away at Halilhodzic’s men.

“It is still difficult to accept that result against Singapore,” the manager said as he named his squad last week. “We want to get a result and get top spot back. We will be focused for that game. It is up to us to get revenge.”

Singapore has proved remarkably resilient in the campaign so far, picking up three wins and conceding only two goals in five games with its sole loss coming 1-0 away to Syria. Japan should still be too strong for an opponent more than 100 places lower in the FIFA rankings, however, and several players in Halilhodzic’s side will be looking to exorcise their own individual demons too.

Forward Keisuke Honda has endured a troubled time of late at AC Milan, where he has not started a game since Sept. 22. Honda appears to be paying the price for criticizing the Italian club last month for its lack of spending, but the 29-year-old is hoping that he can thrive within the sanctuary of the national team.

“The situation is what it is, but it’s not easy,” Honda was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s Nikkan Sports. “Until now I’ve never really sat on the bench. Now I understand what it feels like. But playing for the national team is different and all I’m thinking about is getting the three points.”

Fortunately for Halilhodzic, not everyone in his team shares Honda’s predicament. Both Shinji Kagawa and Yoshinori Muto are enjoying rich veins of form for their clubs in Germany, with Kagawa even scoring a rare header for Borussia Dortmund in Sunday’s Ruhr derby win over Schalke.

“This year I’ve been asked to compete for more balls in the air,” said Kagawa, whose goal earned him the label “Head Monster” in local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten. “So I’m determined not to give into fear and just go for it.”

It is difficult to imagine Kagawa making such a comment a year ago, when his bruised confidence was still smarting from a humbling exit from Manchester United. Halilhodzic will no doubt be pleased to see one of his key players recovering his best form, but 2015 has not been kind to Japan and the team’s rehabilitation is far from complete.

The year could hardly have gotten off to a worse start, with Japan losing to the United Arab Emirates in the Asian Cup quarterfinals in January amid scandal surrounding then-manager Javier Aguirre, who was caught up in a match-fixing investigation in Spain and was eventually dismissed in February.

Halilhodzic has not exactly plotted a straightforward recovery since taking over in March, but the team has shown signs of life in recent games and the manager will hope to build on that over the coming week.

The best way to bring down the curtain on a miserable year would be to take six points.