KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – The World Cup qualifier against Group B leader Saudi Arabia next week could make or break Japan’s campaign, defender Tomoaki Makino said Monday.
“It’s important to play good football, but we as the national team have a responsibility to win,” Makino said following training at the Kashima Antlers clubhouse. “Depending on whether we win or lose here, the away games could become very difficult. We’ve got to go all in and fight to the death.
“We’ll be at home, where there will be lots of fans, and it’s the last game of the year. The result will change next year’s outlook for us.”
Japan will host Oman in a friendly at Kashima Stadium on Friday as a tune-up for the Nov. 15 qualifying match also at home to Saudi Arabia, which, with 10 points, has a three-point lead on Vahid Halilhodzic’s men. Australia is second with eight points.
Victory will see Japan go level on points with the Saudis, possibly overtaking them on goal difference depending on the scoreline.
But defeat could plunge Japan into hot water, setting it six points off the pace going into the second half of the qualifiers, which pick up again in March.
A loss — or even a draw, maybe — will also reignite calls for Halilhodzic to be dismissed, which would be Japan’s second coaching change of this World Cup cycle after the sacking of Javier Aguirre in February last year.
Makino said this is why a good performance from his team against Oman will be particularly important, to use it as a springboard versus Saudi Arabia and to silence the critics.
“You can look at the Saudi game in two ways,” the Urawa Reds man said. “You can look at it as us having our back against the wall or see it as an opportunity to turn things around, which makes the Oman game crucial.
“It’s not any old friendly you play to work on your match fitness. The manager always talks about winning, but we need to make sure we do that to create a positive atmosphere for the Saudi game.”