Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has decided to keep faith in Keisuke Honda, naming the out-of-favor AC Milan attacker to his 25-man squad on Thursday for this month’s World Cup final-round qualifiers against United Arab Emirates and Thailand.
Halilhodzic also threw in a few surprises as Gamba Osaka’s Yasuyuki Konno and club teammate Shu Kurata were recalled along with FC Tokyo’s Yojiro Takahagi for the games in Al Ain on March 23 and Saitama five days later. Takahagi was picked for the first time by Halilhodzic.
Two-time World Cup midfielder Honda has appeared in just five Serie A matches for Milan this season, starting only in a loss to Genoa on Oct. 25.
He has seen no league action since Dec. 12 and was left out of the squad for last Friday’s 2-1 defeat away to Juventus.
But Halilhodzic, who has repeatedly said in the past that he would not select players that are getting no playing time at their clubs, admitted that the 30-year-old Honda was indispensable.
“Even if Honda isn’t playing for his club, the national team needs him,” Halilhodzic told a news conference at the Japan Football Association’s headquarters.
“He is our top striker. Obviously, I would like him to be playing more at Milan but he is not being used because competition for places is so fierce.”
Halilhodzic added: “But he is always very hungry to play for Japan and his presence is required. Whether he plays and how many minutes he plays for is a different question.”
“He didn’t start in our last game (against Saudi Arabia) but put in a good performance when he came on. Honda and (Inter Milan defender Yuto) Nagatomo play for big clubs in Europe and even if they are only training I know I can put my trust in them.”
Konno, who has 87 caps, returns to the national team for the first time since March 2015.
“Konno is on the list because he looks in good condition and has a wealth of experience,” Halilhodzic said. “That is what we need in the next match so for me it is not really a surprise that I have picked him.”
Japan suffered a controversial 2-1 defeat to UAE in its opening match in the final round of qualifiers in September last year when Takuma Asano had a legitimate goal ruled out that would have leveled the match at 2-2.
“Nobody has forgotten that first match against UAE and this is a chance for us to get revenge,” said Halilhodzic.
“We have to go for a win and try and secure qualification. Nobody is going to hand it to us on a plate. We might be roughed up and provoked and it will be physical but I hope the match will be officiated fairly.”
Halihozic’s men are level on 10 points from five games with Saudi Arabia, which tops the group on goal difference. Third-place Australia and fourth-place UAE both have nine points, with Iraq on three and Thailand at the bottom with on one.