Soccer

Yoshida, Japan teammates await important match against Australia

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japan defender Maya Yoshida insists he and his teammates are relaxed ahead of Thursday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Australia despite rumors that manager Vahid Halilhodzic will be fired if the Samurai Blue fail to win.

“To be honest it’s really calm, because we all know our situation,” the Southampton center back told reporters after a training session at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday. “For the national team, every single game is important. We have to win, especially in Asia. The manager is always under pressure. That’s their job.”

Japan heads into Thursday’s game in Saitama knowing that a win will seal its place at a sixth straight World Cup, but also that anything less could open the door for second-place Saudi Arabia and the third-place Australians. Japan currently tops Group B on 17 points, one ahead of the Saudis and Australia on 16, with two games remaining and only two automatic qualifying spots up for grabs. The third-place team goes into the playoffs.

Local media has reported that Halilhodzic will be replaced before Japan’s final Group B fixture against the Saudis in Jeddah on Sept. 5 if the team fails to take all three points on Thursday. Yoshida, however, is more concerned with the threat posed by reigning Asian champion Australia.

“It’s going to be a tough game against Australia so we have to be ready because it’s a very short time to prepare for the game,” said Yoshida, who signed a new three-year contract with Premier League side Southampton last week. “It’s a big difference in temperature and humidity between Europe and Japan, so we have to be clever.

“Especially because they want to keep the ball and we want to keep the ball, so the possession percentage is really important. When we attack, when we control the game, that kind of game management is really important.”

Australia appeared at the Confederations Cup in Russia in June after winning the Asian title on home soil in 2015. The Socceroos exited in the first round, but still showed glimpses of their quality in an opening 3-2 defeat to world champion Germany and subsequent draws against Chile and Cameroon.

“They did well at the Confederations Cup even though they played against Chile and Germany,” said Yoshida. “But I understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. The three backs are physically strong but ability is their problem. I saw them conceding goals at the Confederations Cup with guys running in behind them.”

Halilhodzic could turn to Gaku Shibasaki in a bid to exploit Australia’s defensive frailties after ending the former Kashima Antlers midfielder’s spell in the international wilderness. Shibasaki last appeared for Japan two years ago, but the 25-year-old has impressed in Spain since joining second-division Tenerife on loan in January before winning a move to top-flight Getafe over the summer.

“I have to forget about the feeling I had when I was called up and get ready for the game,” said Shibasaki. “I understand what this game means. I have played on this stage many times before in big games with Kashima, so I have that experience. This game has a different meaning, but if I play I want to leave my mark.”

Shibasaki struggled with anxiety problems after moving to Spain but went on to play an influential role in Tenerife’s unsuccessful promotion push before signing with Getafe.

“It has been tough but if you don’t go out and do it, you won’t understand it,” he said. “As a player and as a person I have grown a lot.

“I’ve played in a lot of positions and that has expanded my game. It’s not just in central midfield but further forward too. If I’m chosen to play in central midfield, then I think I can do that but my capacity to do more has increased. It’s not like I have absolutely no opinion about where I want to play, but I have to do my duty wherever I am chosen.”