SAITAMA – Shinji Kagawa may have returned to the starting lineup for Japan in Thursday’s win over the United Arab Emirates, but the Dortmund midfielder feels far from certain about his place in the first team.
Following training on Sunday for Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Thailand at Saitama Stadium, the former Manchester United man said he is taking nothing for granted under Vahid Halilhodzic, who, if need be, has not hesitated in dropping Japan’s long-time mainstays like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki — and Kagawa.
Kagawa turned in a solid, 71-minute performance against the UAE after starting the game on the bench in Japan’s previous qualifier, a 2-1 home win over Group B leader Saudi Arabia in November. Hiroshi Kiyotake impressed in his place in that game.
With Kiyotake off to a slow start in the J. League, Kagawa would appear a good bet to start again against the Thais, yet Japan’s No. 10 begs to differ.
“The competition within the squad is tough now,” Kagawa said. “No one is assured of a place and if you don’t perform when you’re picked, you won’t be rated.
“The most important thing right now is to qualify for the World Cup. That is the priority. But I have to find a way to show what I can do while making sure we qualify for the World Cup.”
Thailand is dead last in the group with just one point from six games following a 3-0 defeat at home to the Saudis on Thursday. With four matches left in the campaign, it would take a miracle of epic proportions for the Thais to qualify for Russia.
Kagawa, though, thinks Thailand could prove to be a tricky proposition if Japan is not careful.
“I don’t think they will be easy to break down at all,” he said. “We will need variety, be it on set pieces or when we try to play them on the short counter.
“During these World Cup qualifiers, we’ve struggled to open up teams who sit back on us. We need to be on the same wavelength when we’re trying to create opportunities for ourselves.”
Takuma Asano, who scored when Japan defeated Thailand 2-0 in Bangkok in September, echoed Kagawa’s sentiments.
“It’s difficult to tell how they will play us,” said Asano, on loan from Arsenal to Stuttgart. “I’m guessing they’ll come out because they need the points and if that happens, I can really play to my strengths.
“I think if we give them too much freedom, they can cause us trouble. They have good technique and are solid as a team. If we don’t respect them, they’ll make us pay.
“From the manager on down, we’ll all be on our toes for this one because not letting up is the most important thing as we get ready for the match.”