SAITAMA – Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima believes he has repaid his manager’s faith after returning from the international wilderness to steer Japan closer to a sixth straight World Cup appearance with two clean sheets in two qualifying wins.
Two-time World Cup veteran Kawashima lost his place in Japan’s starting lineup to Urawa Reds’ Shusaku Nishikawa in the summer of 2015 after finding himself without a club for several months, and went on to appear only once for his country until manager Vahid Halilhodzic handed him a shock recall for last Thursday’s World Cup qualifier away to the United Arab Emirates.
An impressive performance in that 2-0 win earned Kawashima another start in Tuesday’s home game against Thailand, and the 34-year-old did not disappoint, keeping another clean sheet in Japan’s 4-0 win and saving a late penalty into the bargain.
Kawashima now returns to French club Metz — where he has made only one appearance all season — but the 185-cm ‘keeper does so with renewed confidence after helping his country leapfrog Saudi Arabia into first place on goal difference in qualifying Group B.
“A high level is always demanded of you when you play for the Japan national team, so first of all it’s an honor for me to play in these two games,” said Kawashima, who threw himself to his right to deny Thailand’s Teerasil Dangda from the penalty spot in the 85th minute at Saitama Stadium.
“The manager was taking a risk by playing me in these two games. It was a chance for me to play to the level that I demand of myself and I had no choice but to show that I could do it. But now the fight to play for my club starts again and I just have to show that I am worthy of being called up next time.”
Saudi Arabia beat Iraq 1-0 later Tuesday to keep pace with Japan on 16 points, but Japan took over in first place after bolstering its goal difference against the Thais. Third-place Australia stayed three points behind the leaders after beating the UAE 2-0, setting up a tight battle to determine which two sides qualify automatically for Russia 2018 and which team goes into a playoff.
Japan next plays Iraq in Tehran on June 13. Halilhodzic’s side then faces Australia at home on Aug. 31 before rounding off the campaign five days later with an away game against the Saudis.
Japan took an eighth-minute lead against Thailand through Shinji Kagawa before Shinji Okazaki scored the 50th goal of his international career 11 minutes later to put the home side firmly in control.
Thailand, which has now been eliminated from contention after taking only one point from seven games, fought its way back into the match until Yuya Kubo nipped the revival in the bud with Japan’s third goal in the 57th minute and Maya Yoshida added a fourth seven minutes from time.
“It was a great win but there are things that I’m not happy with,” said Halilhodzic. “We made a great start to go 2-0 up, but after that we stopped playing. During that time, our opponents had plenty of chances to score.
“We let our focus and our work-rate drop. There were times when I was frustrated by the lack of quality in our passing. If the opposition had been of a higher quality, I think it would have turned out to be a different game.”
Okazaki’s diving header saw him join Kunishige Kamamoto and Kazuyoshi Miura as the only players to have scored 50 goals for Japan, but the Leicester City striker was just as relieved to have ended an international scoring drought stretching back to last June.
“I haven’t scored any headers like that recently so it was good to get back the feeling of being a striker,” said Okazaki, who revealed that he had been watching videos of former Italy striker Filippo Inzaghi for goal-scoring inspiration.
“It’s not just that I haven’t been scoring, it feels like I haven’t even played a full 90 minutes for the national team for years. So on a personal level, this has been good for me.”
Kagawa and Okazaki both scored from crosses from Gent forward Kubo, who also notched his second international goal in as many games after replacing longtime team talisman Keisuke Honda in the starting lineup.
“Seeing Yuya play like that is a big incentive for us veterans on the team,” said Yoshida, who scored Japan’s fourth goal with a thunderous header from a corner. “But on the other hand, it’s also a big plus for the team to see a player like Kawashima, who hasn’t been playing, come back in and deliver results. It’s a good situation to be in.”
Thailand belied its lowly position by threatening Japan’s goal on several occasions, but manager Kiatisuk Senamuang admitted that his team had been outclassed.
“Today we learned a lot,” he said. “You could see the difference in quality between the two teams. It’s good experience and we just have to try harder. I have no complaints. My players gave 100 percent.”