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Halilhodzic leaves door open as World Cup draws closer

by Andrew McKirdy

Japan’s squad for this summer’s World Cup appears to be taking shape, but don’t bet against manager Vahid Halilhodzic ripping up the blueprint before he submits it in time for the June 4 deadline.

Japan plays its first two games of the year over the coming week against Mali on March 23 and Ukraine four days later, both in Liege, Belgium. Halilhodzic has only a May 30 home friendly against Ghana to follow before he must finalize his 23-man World Cup selection, and he appears determined to keep all options open until the last minute.

“A lot of the players are not currently performing at their best level,” Halilhodzic said last week as he announced his 26-man squad for this week’s trip to Europe. “I picked this squad to send a message to the players that I want to see them all returning to their best form.”

Halilhodzic left out Cultural Leonesa midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi and Stuttgart striker Takuma Asano, claiming their lack of action with their club sides could even cost them a place on the plane to Russia. It seems inconceivable that the manager would discard two players in whom he has invested so much time and effort shaping into national team regulars, but he will expect all his players to hit the ground running this summer and he will tolerate no passengers.

“The six months leading up to the tournament are so important,” Halilhodzic said. “It’s important to maintain a high level of performance. I will be asking my players to play at pace and do a lot of running at the World Cup, and they will have to deal with a lot of changes in rhythm.”

The door, in that case, appears to be open for latecomers to hit form and force their way into the reckoning between now and the start of June. A first call-up for Shoya Nakajima last week certainly suggested so, and the 23-year-old Portimonense forward will be hoping to make an impression over the next week after hitting nine goals in 23 appearances for his Portuguese club so far this season.

“It’s a good thing that there are so many young players in the squad,” Nakajima said after providing an assist in Portimonense’s 1-1 draw with Setubal on Saturday. “A few of the players who I played with on the Rio Olympic squad have also been chosen. It’s my first call-up, but I think there are some things that will make it easier.”

Another player who will be feeling better about his World Cup chances is Keisuke Honda. The Pachuca forward looked anything but certain to appear at a third tournament when Halilhodzic omitted him for games against Brazil and Belgium last November, but a recall for this week’s trip after a six-month absence gives him the opportunity to prove his worth.

“I’ll have to think about what that means,” Honda told reporters upon arriving in Liege this week, after being told that Halilhodzic had said that he wanted him to “grab this chance.”

The manager has not, however, extended the same lifeline to striker Shinji Okazaki. Halilhodzic has never appeared to be particularly enamored by the Leicester City man — Japan’s third-highest all-time scorer with 50 goals in 108 appearances — and his explanation for leaving him out of this week’s squad was telling.

“I’m looking for players who can score goals,” Halilhodzic said. “Players with different qualities to Okazaki. Players who can score more goals. Players who can give me something different. I want to try other players.”

That would certainly appear to leave Okazaki sweating on his World Cup place, and he is not the only one. Neither Shinji Kagawa nor Hiroshi Kiyotake have been involved with the team for several months now, and injuries have denied them the chance to stake their claim this week.

But Halilhodzic’s open-door policy will also encourage every other player — established or otherwise — that a late run at the final squad is not simply a pipe dream. The manager has placed great emphasis on stimulating competition during his three years in charge, and he is unlikely to start dishing out promises and reassurances to veteran players now.

There may be more surprises before he names his squad on June 4.