Japan was handed a tough draw on Tuesday for the Asian final qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup as Vahid Halilhodzic’s side landed in Group B with Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.
In Group A are Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria for the campaign starting this September and finishing in September 2017.
Japan’s first game will be at home on Sept. 1 to UAE, which eliminated the then-holder at last year’s Asian Cup quarterfinals. Japan plays Thailand away five days later on its first road trip.
Japan hosts Iraq on Oct. 6 before facing Asian champion Australia away on the 11th. Its last qualifier of the year will be on Nov. 15 at home to Saudi Arabia.
Halilhodzic stressed the importance of winning the first match against UAE, especially with it being at home and the revenge factor woven in.
“Whether this draw was a good one or bad one we’ll find out in the end,” Halilhodzic said. “If we go through, it was good; if we don’t, it was bad.
“Having seen our opponents, three of the four semifinalists at the last Asian Cup are in our group including UAE, who beat Japan at the tournament. In a competition like this, the first game is crucial because winning that will give you confidence and we need to pay them back for the Asian Cup.
“I watched UAE the other night, but they do have quality like a lot of Arab teams and with a new coach, they look fit and have tactically improved. I’ve analyzed UAE from the Asian Cup and they have nice players in attack, especially (Omar Abdulrahman) who is decisive pretty much every game.”
He added: “Thailand are skillful, organized and none of the teams in our group are easy. We must start the campaign with a beautiful victory before going to Thailand. The first two games will be very important.”
Japan will rekindle its rivalry with the Socceroos, whom it will face for the third straight time in the final qualifiers but has yet to beat. Their first meeting will be on Oct. 11 in Australia with the Japan leg set for Aug. 31, 2017.
Halilhodzic, naturally, marked Ange Postecoglou’s men as the team to beat in the group.
“Most of Australia’s players are in Europe and impose themselves physically,” the Bosnian said. “They will probably be our toughest opponents. We need to be ready to play them in Australia in November.”
“(Tim) Cahill has a lot of experience playing in England and scored a lot of goals for Australia. He’s played at a high level for many years. Their No. 10 on the left (Robbie Kruse) can pass and take people on. Their back line is strong and it will be a massive test for Japan.
“It should be a game of World Cup quality in terms of pressure and intensity. There’s a reason why they won the Asian Cup.”
Cahill & Co. are up for the high-profiled challenge as they always are.
“Japan, we’ve had some good games against them,” Cahill said, according to Fox Sports. “I’m excited for this. This won’t faze (Ange) one bit, to test ourselves against Japan, to go up against these former teams.”
Japan’s last game will be on Sept. 5, 2017, away to Saudi Arabia, which is now coached by Bert van Marwijk. Van Marwijk, whose side will visit Japan on Nov. 15, beat the Blue Samurai at the 2010 World Cup in the group phase as Netherlands boss.
Japan hosts Iraq on Oct. 6 and plays it away on June 13, 2017, likely at a neutral venue with the war-torn nation unable to organize home games.
Halilhodzic’s men start the year 2017 in UAE on March 23 before welcoming Thailand to Japan five days later.
“The road to Russia will not be an easy one,” he said. “But we knew that all along, and we’ll do what we have to do to get through these qualifiers. There will be a lot of traveling and recovery will be key, as it always is for Japan.”
“When I took over, we were still coping with the disappointment of the Asian Cup and the World Cup. The team wasn’t ready to prepare for the World Cup in Russia. But we’ve spent the past year discussing a number of things and now have the ambition and hunger for a World Cup.”
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