• Kyodo

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Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic cracked the whip on Monday and fired a warning shot at his team, ordering his players not to take Thailand lightly in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier.

Thailand is last in Group B with just one point from six games, and has little hope of qualifying for next year’s World Cup. Japan took another sure step toward Russia on Thursday when it beat the United Arab Emirates in Al Ain, a win that kept it level on points (13) with leader Saudi Arabia.

Halilhodzic, however, said the mission remains far from accomplished for Japan and that if his team is to underestimate the Thais in any way, it will pay the price.

“We played well against the UAE, but that victory will mean something only if we beat Thailand,” Halilhodzic said on the eve of the Thailand game at Saitama Stadium. “I told the players that immediately after the UAE game.

“A lot of people think they will be easy opponents for us, but I find them to be very difficult. We need to be careful because they are a good team. We must fight for a win and nothing else.”

“This away win brought us experience and confidence. You build a team over four years to the World Cup, but one mistake and years of hard work can go down the drain,” he continued.

“The future of all of Japanese football rests on our shoulders. I would be taking my third team to the World Cup, and I’m not about to make a mistake and throw this opportunity away.”

The Japan players appear to be getting Halilhodzic’s message.

“Since the World Cup qualifying started, we’ve struggled against teams like them,” Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki said. “Me personally, I’m 100 percent certain it will be a difficult match. It will not be easy for us to win.

“In our last game, we may not have played the football we wanted to play but we accepted what we had to do in order to win. Tomorrow will be an entirely different game and we will have to adjust again. I think the first half will be crucial for us.”

Halilhodzic admitted that losing midfielder Yasuyuki Konno and forward Yuya Osako to injuries has been a setback, but he is expecting their replacements — who he did not name — to step up.

“Not having Konno and Osako is a disadvantage. They played well against the UAE,” the former Algeria boss said. “Our captain (Makoto) Hasebe is also still out. We’re in a tight spot, but we need to find other solutions. Other players will get a chance now.

“If the players aren’t motivated, then something is wrong. The World Cup is on our doorstep now. We cannot miss this opportunity, we cannot underestimate Thailand.

“They have been playing well,” he continued. “They almost beat Australia and against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they played well. To beat them, we must play with heart and be willing to work hard.

“We don’t win games with just 11, but the 23 on the entire squad. That is the strength of our team. No one player is going to carry our team. None of us is going to take it past five defenders and win a match for us.

“Our strength lies in the collective.”

Yuya Kubo, who scored Japan’s first goal and assisted the second in Thursday’s 2-0 victory over the UAE, looks set to start on the right wing again, given the Gent midfielder’s superb form at the moment.

“I don’t think my role will change, which will be to create chances, get involved in the goals,” said the 23-year-old Kubo, winner of three caps. “I’ll make sure I can contribute.

“It’s just one good game that I had. If I play the way I’m supposed to play, I think the goals will be there in the end. I don’t obsess about goals; I just try to keep a level head when I play.”

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