JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA – Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki on Saturday warned Japan not to take its foot off the pedal when it faces Saudi Arabia away in its final qualifier for the 2018 World Cup finals.
With Vahid Halilhodzic’s men having already secured qualification for Russia after their 2-0 home win over Asian champion Australia on Aug. 31, Tuesday’s game in Jeddah is effectively a dead rubber for the Samurai Blue.
Japan has already won Group B and Saudi Arabia will be looking to grab the group’s other direct qualification spot, with Australia, which plays Thailand in Melbourne on Tuesday, hoping to do the same.
“Every game from now until the finals will become crucial, in particular this game,” Okazaki said following Japan’s first training session after arriving in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Saturday. “They (Saudi Arabia) will be making a killer effort to qualify and even though we are already through to the finals, if we don’t go into the game with the same spirit, then I don’t think we are going to win it.”
Youngsters such as Yuya Kubo, Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi have played a crucial role in helping Japan reach the finals.
The emergence of those players, along with other factors, means veterans like Okazaki, who is in good form for Leicester so far this term, and Pachuca’s Keisuke Honda have seen less and less playing time for the national team in recent months.
Okazaki, the world’s top scorer in international soccer in 2009 with 15 goals, has played the full 90 minutes just once in his last 19 internationals, scoring his 50th national team goal in a 4-0 win over Thailand on March 28.
The 31-year-old only played the last four minutes in the win over Australia secured by goals from Asano and Ideguchi.
“Of course it is a survival battle for me (to make the squad for Russia) but more than that it is about players that go to the World Cup having the objective to deliver results there,” Okazaki said.
“For me also, it’s not just about getting selected for the squad. Players that get picked have to produce, I want to produce and have the ambition to take my game up to the next level.”
Honda made his first start in five matches in the 1-1 draw with Iraq in June but was kept on the bench for the Australia game, the first time he has had no minutes in a final-round qualifier.
But the former AC Milan man said he is only battling himself, not the younger players coming to the forefront, to reclaim his regular place in the team.
“The way I am looking at getting my regular place back in the team is a bit different to everyone else, and is not the competition (for me) that everyone thinks it is. I am challenging myself,” said Honda.
“It is natural (that youngsters come through) and not just in the world of soccer. Everyone dies in the end and soccer players retire and I will retire.
“There are a number of players, experienced players, including myself, that are reaching a crucial period. I am directing my eyes towards myself and I want to win that battle.
“I still think I can improve (by the time the World Cup starts in June) and want to turn up the power in every aspect of my game.”