Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Japan playing for high stakes in World Cup double-header

by Andrew McKirdy

Only one point separates the top four teams at the halfway stage of Japan’s final qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup, and the coming week could make or break the Samurai Blue’s bid to reach a sixth successive tournament.

Japan takes on the United Arab Emirates away on Thursday before returning to face Thailand in Saitama five days later. Vahid Halilhodzic’s side has recovered from a poor start to climb into second in the group behind leaders Saudi Arabia on goal difference, but competition remains fierce and the UAE and Australia are snapping at the top two’s heels, one point further back.

With things so tight at the top, there is clearly little margin for error. Defeat against the UAE on Thursday would see Japan strengthen one of its direct qualification rivals as well as dropping points itself, and with only two teams gaining an automatic ticket to Russia and one going into a playoff, something will have to give.

“We have to go for a win and try to secure qualification,” Halilhodzic said as he named his squad last week. “Nobody is going to hand it to us on a plate.”

The UAE is certainly a dangerous opponent, as Halilhdozic’s team found out when it lost 2-1 to the Gulf side in its opening match. Reigning Asian player of the year Omar Abdulrahman’s sublime touch left the Japanese defenders mesmerized at times that night, and Ahmed Khalil’s two goals also marked him out as one to watch.

How well Japan’s star players can perform on Thursday, however, is anyone’s guess. AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda is one of several big names who have been included in Halilhodzic’s squad despite seeing little or no action for their clubs, and captain Makoto Hasebe will miss the match through injury.

“I understand why people are asking how a player who doesn’t play for his club can be called up to the national team,” Honda, who has seen just one minute of action for Milan in 2017, said earlier this week. “The most important thing is for me to do well and leave my mark. It’s my failure that has given everyone licence to say whatever they want about me.”

Halilhodzic proved that he is not afraid to ruffle feathers by dropping Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for Japan’s 2-1 home win over the Saudis last November, but the Bosnian is nothing if not a pragmatist and his lineup on Thursday is likely to prioritize experience over experimentation.

“The truth is that there aren’t many players who know the kind of mentality needed to win games,” said Honda. “The fact is that the manager relies on me. We need to win, so first of all let’s just get to the World Cup.”

But while Halilhodzic’s current focus may be squarely on achieving qualification, he will have to address the decline of some of his most influential players at some point. Honda, Okazaki and Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo are all 30 and have all spent much of this season on the bench for their clubs, and with just over a year to go until the World Cup, Halilhodzic could have a major rebuilding job on his hands before it begins.

Such questions will, of course, be academic if Japan fails to get there, and defeat to the UAE would certainly make that scenario possible. Victory over the Emiratis and a further three points against Thailand, on the other hand, would surely guarantee Japan a playoff place at the very least, especially with the UAE and Australia set to face each other in Sydney next Tuesday.

Such are the stakes that Halilhodzic’s team is playing for over the coming week.