Vahid Halilhodzic appears to have weathered the storm that threatened to cut short his tenure as national team manager last month. But the Bosnian will be anxious not to slip back into the danger zone when Japan takes on Saudi Arabia in a World Cup qualifier in Saitama next Tuesday.
Japan faces the Saudis having clawed its way back into Group B contention with a last-gasp home win over Iraq and a hard-fought away draw with Australia last month. The damage done by an opening home defeat to the United Arab Emirates means Japan trails group leader Saudi Arabia by three points and Australia by one going into next week’s game, but a big win over the Saudis could yet put Halilhodzic’s side on top of the group at the halfway point of the campaign.
“Depending on whether we win or lose here, the away games could become very difficult,” Japan defender Tomoaki Makino said earlier this week. “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 limber up for the occasion with a friendly at home to Oman on Friday, and Halilhodzic has freshened up his squad with a handful of new faces. Gamba Osaka midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi and Young Boys forward Yuya Kubo will both be looking to win their first senior caps, and with several of the team still struggling to play regularly with their clubs, those racking up the minutes could take advantage.
“He’s always in the starting lineup,” Halilhodzic said of the 22-year-old Kubo, who has scored five goals in 14 Swiss League appearances this season. “For sure, he’ll be in better shape than the players who haven’t been playing. Having Kubo gives us more ideas in attack, and we may need to play with four up front. If we need a goal or we’re behind in the game, he is one solution.”
Halilhodzic has shown he is not afraid to ruffle feathers by dropping his star players, but the manager’s constantly changing lineups also suggest he is not sure of his best team. Captain Makoto Hasebe has not had the same midfield partner for two consecutive games so far in the qualifiers, while Shinji Okazaki, Takuma Asano and even Keisuke Honda have all been deployed as the lone striker.
Competition for places is, of course, healthy for the team, and Okazaki has made it clear that he is not prepared to give up his spot and make way for the new generation without a fight.
“(Yuya) Osako and Kubo have both been called up, and they’re both forwards,” the Leicester City striker said after his team’s 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday. “It’s good to have expectations of young players, but It’s not like Messi is coming into the squad.”
Such a feisty attitude will be required when Japan takes on Saudi Arabia, which appears to be on its way toward reclaiming its place among Asia’s elite after a decade in the wilderness. Bert van Marwijk’s side has won three and drawn one of its qualifying matches so far, and arrives in Japan on the back of an impressive 3-0 win over the UAE.
Japan has no need to fear any team in Asia, however, and a composed, tactically disciplined performance against Australia last month was a welcome return to form after a series of ragged outings.
Now the team must show greater consistency. As Makino said earlier this week, Japan’s result against the Saudis will set the tone for the second half of the campaign to come.