Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Match-rusty Japan left with little margin for error in qualifiers

by Andrew McKirdy

National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic last week bridled at suggestions that he is making excuses for Japan’s underwhelming start to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers. But there will be no place to hide if the Samurai Blue slip further off the pace after games against Iraq and Australia over the coming week.

Japan began its bid to reach a sixth straight World Cup last month with a 2-1 home defeat to the United Arab Emirates, before preventing a descent into all-out catastrophe with a 2-0 away win over Thailand five days later.

With only two games gone, Japan already has little margin for error. Group rivals Australia and Saudi Arabia have both made perfect starts while the UAE looks like a genuine qualification contender, and anything less than four points from the coming two fixtures — starting at home against Iraq on Thursday — would constitute a major setback.

“I am setting high goals for this team, which is to improve us to a point where we can stand toe-to-toe with the world’s best teams,” Halilhodzic said as he named his squad. But one glance at the predicament his European-based players find themselves in suggests that Japan still has a long way to go.

So far this season, five key members of Halilhodzic’s squad — Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, Yuto Nagatomo and Maya Yoshida — have played a combined 611 league minutes for their clubs out of a possible 3,060. Honda, the player Japan looks to more than any other, has managed just 19 for AC Milan.

Clearly that is not good enough for a national team that — by Halilhodzic’s design — relies heavily on its European-based stars. But the manager insists that with more and more Japanese players moving overseas and leaving the J. League weaker as a result, he has little choice but to keep faith in his European bench-warmers.

“If I don’t pick these players, who am I going to pick?” he asked. “The gap between football in Japan and Europe is clear.”

Halilhodzic can at least console himself with the fact that his players will be well-rested and fresh, and even a match-rusty Japan should — on paper — have too much quality for Iraq. Asian champion Australia is likely to be a tougher opponent, however, and Socceroos manager Ange Postecoglou can call on several players who have already made an impact for their clubs this season.

“Physically they should be in better condition than last camp, when they were in good nick and they felt pretty good about themselves because they’ve been playing regularly,” Postecoglou said of his players earlier this week. “They’ve started the season strongly and since then they’ve continued to kick on.”

How Halilhodzic must wish he could say the same of his own players. Instead the Bosnian was last week drawn into a fierce defense of his record, arguing that “there is a major difference, especially in attack” to the team he inherited from Mexican Javier Aguirre when he took over in March last year.

Whether Halilhodzic is doing a better job than his various predecessors is a question that can only be answered once Japan’s involvement in the 2018 World Cup has ended. The 63-year-old had better hope that does not happen until the actual tournament in Russia itself, and it will not have escaped his notice that the most recent FIFA rankings placed his team as the sixth-best side in Asia.

Against Iraq and Australia, Japan must prove it is capable of doing much, much better.