SAITAMA – National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic has warned his Europe-based stars to play regularly for their clubs or face a spell in the international wilderness after dropping Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for Tuesday night’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Saudi Arabia.
Japan boosted its chances of appearing at a sixth straight World Cup with a hard-fought win over the Saudis at Saitama Stadium, with Hiroshi Kiyotake scoring a 45th-minute penalty and Genki Haraguchi adding a second goal in the 80th minute before the visitors notched a late reply.
The win moved Japan level on points with the Saudis at the top of Group B with half of the final round of qualifiers played, and left Halilhodzic vindicated in his decision to bench his star trio of Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki, who have amassed 273 caps between them.
“I keep telling the overseas players that they all have to play more for their clubs,” said Halilhodzic. “I know they’re all in a difficult situation but I tell them over and over again that they have to get into the starting lineup or move to a club where they will be able to play.
“Our team depends on the form of the overseas players and I never imagined the situation that we’ve been in for the past two or three months, where 80 or 90 percent of our overseas players are not playing. I don’t know what will happen by March, but with that in mind I am certainly looking at the young players.”
Young Boys striker Yuya Kubo, who has scored five goals in 14 Swiss League games this season, started ahead of Honda, who has managed a total of 81 minutes in three games for AC Milan in Serie A.
“He talked to me in training about how to defend, how to not look at the goalkeeper but just think of the goal as a frame when I shoot,” the 22-year-old Kubo, who won his second cap after making his debut against Oman in a friendly last Friday, said of Honda, who left without speaking to reporters.
“I found out that I would be in the starting lineup today but I had an inkling in training. I was told to try to get in behind their defense. It felt completely different to other games. It was a great atmosphere.”
Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki all came on in the second half, and Kagawa, who has been playing regularly for German side Borussia Dortmund but missed Japan’s 4-0 win over Oman with an ankle injury, had no problem with the manager’s selection.
“Of course that (injury) played a part, but I didn’t play well in the first round of qualifiers and I knew that I couldn’t take my place for granted,” said Kagawa.
“More than feeling under threat, it’s something that spurs me on. If you look back to the last World Cup and the first round of qualifiers, there are things I need to work on. So I can take a lot from this.”
The Saudis arrived in Saitama having won three and drawn one of their four previous qualifiers. But two yellow cards in the first 10 minutes allowed Japan to put the visitors under pressure before a handball on the stroke of halftime gave Kiyotake his chance from the penalty spot.
“We know that in order to beat Japan we have to be in top form and have a very good day,” said Saudia Arabia manager Bert van Marwijk, who led his native Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final. “Every player has to be at his top level, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case today.
“I was particularly disappointed to get two unnecessary yellow cards so early on. At times you saw today that we can play football really well, but that’s not enough. There were too many periods in this game where we were not ourselves.”
A 90th-minute goal from Omar Othman ensured Japan would endure a nervy end to the match, but the home side held on and moved into second place in the group when Australia drew 2-2 with Thailand later in the evening.
“Of course it wasn’t good to concede at the end, but the minimum requirement was to take three points,” said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe. “There were a lot of changes to the team and that stimulates competition and reinvigorates the team.
“I think it sends a good message to every player. If you’re not playing for your club then the manager won’t play you. This was the last game of the year and we now have some time before the next one, so I think it sent a good message.”