Keisuke Honda is among 27 players named to Japan’s squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers against Australia and Saudi Arabia.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic will be counting on the experience of the veteran midfielder who scored in his debut for Mexican club Pachuca on Tuesday.
Other players named for the Aug. 31 match against Australia and the Sept. 5 away match against Saudi Arabia include Leicester forward Shinji Okazaki, midfielder Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Southampton defender Maya Yoshida.
Halilhodzic revealed the squad on Thursday.
Japan leads its Asian qualifying group with 17 points, one ahead of Australia and Saudi Arabia, and could secure a spot for the 2018 tournament with a win over the Socceroos.
The leading two teams from the two Asian qualifying groups qualify directly for Russia next year. The third-place teams in each group enter a two-leg playoff for the right to play the fourth-place CONCACAF team in the final qualifying round.
Amid reports that defeat against the Socceroos could cost him his job, Halilhodzic was in a defiant mood on Thursday.
“We started the final round of qualifiers on the wrong foot (with a 2-1 defeat at home to United Arab Emirates last September) but we are top of the group,” Halilhodzic told a news conference at the Japan Football Association’s Tokyo headquarters.
“I hear the recent criticism directed my way and it puts pressure on me but this is the kind of situation I like. The more I come under attack and the more criticism I face, the more determined I am to respond.”
Halilhodzic was speaking a day after the JFA reiterated its support for the 65-year-old, following a tabloid report that quoted an association official as saying “it would be hard to imagine him taking the team to Saudi Arabia if Japan lose to Australia.”
Halilhodzic welcomed back regular captain Makoto Hasebe. The Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder was one of a number of players named on the squad who are returning from injury.
The former Algeria coach also recalled Spanish-based midfielder Gaku Shibasaki and Mainz striker Yoshinori Muto. He named Cerezo Osaka attacker Kenyu Sugimoto as one of four uncapped players in the squad.
“It is good to have Shibasaki back,” Halilhodzic said of the Getafe midfielder. “It took time for him to adjust in Spain but I have watched his last two matches and he has done well and can do better. He has great character.”
Along with Hasebe, who had to undergo surgery on a knee injury sustained in March, Cologne striker Yuya Osako, Pachuca midfielder Keisuke Honda and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa have been fitness concerns for a variety of ailments.
Goalkeepers — Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders — Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Genta Miura (Gamba Osaka)
Midfielders — Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Yojiro Takahagi (FC Tokyo), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Yuki Kobayashi (Heerenveen), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka)
Forwards — Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Yuya Osako (Cologne), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz), Kenyu Sugimoto (Cerezo Osaka), Yuya Kubo (Gent), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart)