Soccer

Honda sweats on place in World Cup qualifier against Saudis

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic has warned star player Keisuke Honda that he is not guaranteed of a starting place when Japan takes on Saudi Arabia in a crucial World Cup qualifier next Tuesday.

Honda started Japan’s 4-0 friendly win over Oman at Kashima Stadium on Friday night but lasted only 61 minutes before making way for Takuma Asano, as a lack of playing time for club side AC Milan caught up with him.

Honda has made only three Serie A appearances for the Italian giants so far this season — racking up just 81 minutes — and Halilhodzic hinted he may drop the Samurai Blue icon for qualifying group leader Saudi Arabia’s visit to Saitama Stadium.

“One thing I confirmed is that Honda isn’t up to speed with the rhythm of the game,” said Halilhodzic. “He has a lot of experience and he is a big presence in the team, but I need to look at who will give us the best performance against Saudi Arabia.

“I think the team’s performances started dropping off a bit in September. The team was playing better at the Kirin Cup (in June). (Yuto) Nagatomo isn’t feeling well and I don’t know exactly why. (Shinji) Kagawa has a slight injury. It’s getting in the way of us concentrating on training.

“We need to be able to control the game against Saudi Arabia. I don’t know who will play. That’s something I need to think about now.”

Honda has started all four of Japan’s final-round qualifiers but has been substituted in all but one. The 30-year-old came out swinging after the squad trained on Saturday morning, however, and insists he is ready to face the Saudis.

“I hadn’t spoken to the manager but I expected to be substituted around that time,” said Honda. “I thought I would get tired around that time although I didn’t know how sudden it would hit me. It was a good test for me and I feel that I am getting back into the groove.

“When I’m not playing, I don’t know how I’m going to feel physically, what my touch is going to be like or what my feeling for the game will be. You become conscious of these things, but yesterday I felt relaxed and I wasn’t thinking about it so I guess I’m back to normal.

“I hear the criticism and I’m thankful for it. If I didn’t want to prove people wrong, then I might as well give up playing. I have to show people that Honda is back to his best.”

Halilhodzic used Friday’s friendly to bring in several new or inexperienced faces, with Kashima Antlers midfielder Ryota Nagaki and Young Boys striker Yuya Kubo making their debuts. Heerenveen midfielder Yuki Kobayashi and FC Tokyo defender Yuichi Maruyama also won their second caps, with Kobayashi notching Japan’s fourth goal in injury time.

“This wasn’t a game with anything at stake,” said Kobayashi, who came off the bench to replace Nagaki in the 68th minute. “I scored the fourth goal of a 4-0 win, but I want to score the first goal when our opponents still have some energy. That said, getting on the pitch and scoring is important.

“I haven’t played in defensive midfield before for the national team, and if I do it more often then I think I’ll get better. But I saw plenty of the ball even though I wasn’t on the pitch for long, and I was involved in a few attacks. I think I managed to show my skill on the ball tonight.”

Cologne striker Yuya Osako capped his first game for the national team in almost a year and a half with two first-half goals, before Sevilla’s Hiroshi Kiyotake converted a 64th-minute penalty and Kobayashi added a late fourth.

“I saw a lot of good things,” said Halilhodzic. “Some players did well and some weren’t able to get into the rhythm of the game. I took a lot from the game, but I’m not happy that we made so many technical errors. There were also times when we panicked, although the slippy surface might have had something to do with it.

“We needed to be able to control the game more. We still have players who aren’t able to adjust to the rhythm of the game. Can the young players take responsibility? That’s a question that will have to be addressed. There were good and bad points from tonight, but I want to praise the players’ attitude. Oman was a good opponent and this was a good test for us.”

Japan trails World Cup qualifying Group B leader Saudi Arabia by three points and second-place Australia by one with four games of the final round played.

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