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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.

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