SAITAMA – National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic took a swipe at his critics after guiding Japan to a place at the 2018 World Cup with a 2-0 win over Australia on Thursday night, before revealing that an unspecified issue in his private life almost forced him to miss the game.
“To the journalists, maybe not all of you but I’m sure that some of you wanted me out of my job,” said Halilhodzic, who local media had reported would be fired if Japan failed to beat Australia.
“I might remain, I might not. But in either case, I want to praise the team. I’m very proud of them tonight. We have faced a lot of difficulties and challenges but they were like heroes tonight. We were playing against a quality team and I think this has set a standard.”
Japan qualified for a sixth straight World Cup with a game to spare after beating Asian champion Australia with a goal in each half from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi in front of a crowd of 59,492 at Saitama Stadium.
The result marked a personal vindication for Halilhodzic following heavy criticism throughout a final-round qualifying campaign that began with a 2-1 home defeat to the United Arab Emirates, but the Bosnian revealed that his mind had been on other matters in the buildup to the game.
“I have been facing a major issue in my private life,” said the 64-year-old. “You might not know, but because of that problem, before the match I was thinking of returning home. It’s a major issue that I have. But I felt I had a responsibility to the supporters of the team, and when all the criticism started I tried to stand strong because that is my character.”
Defender Maya Yoshida said that the players had been unaware that Halilhodzic was facing a personal problem.
But the Southampton man was happy to lay two ghosts to rest as Japan finally beat Australia in a World Cup qualifying game for the first time in eight attempts, and became the first team to recover from losing its first game of the current Asian final-round format to reach the finals.
“He didn’t say anything to us, and I couldn’t see any attitude,” said Yoshida. “He was just normal.
“I think we have done very well — 2-0 against Australia, who we didn’t win against in the whole of the history of qualification. And also the team who lost their first game hadn’t been able to qualify. Those two points lifted the whole team up and that kind of motivation is very important for myself and the rest of the players as well.”
Halilhodzic raised eyebrows by including 21-year-old Ideguchi and 22-year-old Asano in the starting lineup, but both players repaid his confidence with well-taken goals. Asano volleyed home a Yuto Nagatomo cross to give Japan the lead in the 41st minute, before Ideguchi made the game safe with a scorching shot from the edge of the box with eight minutes left to play.
“The young players played today and got the experience, and that helps to revitalize the team and provide competition for places,” said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe. “None of the players have grabbed their ticket to the World Cup yet.
“If you look at what the manager did with Algeria at the last World Cup, in all three group games he used a lot of players. No player’s place in the team is assured. If you look at that in a good way, it means everyone has a chance.”
Japan is now assured of finishing top of Group B but still has one fixture remaining against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on Sept. 5. Two teams qualify automatically, with the third-place team going into a playoff.
The Saudis and Australia are both behind Japan on 16 points. The Saudis lead on goal difference by two goals but Australia has the easier final game on paper, against bottom side Thailand in Melbourne.
Australia manager Ange Postecoglou lost key midfielder Aaron Mooy to illness on Thursday, and admitted that Japan deserved the win.
“It wasn’t far from what we expected, maybe a couple of individuals in terms of the way they played,” said Postecoglou. “We just never got control of the midfield the way we wanted to. We had possession but not real effective possession. We turned the ball over in transition and they’ve got the ability to hit you quickly.
“We’re now in a position where we need to win the game and then rely on the other result, which is the position we didn’t want to be in but that’s the position we’re in. So we’ll just go out there on Tuesday night and try to impose ourselves on the game, perform well and hopefully get the right result.”