Japan cruised to it’s third straight win under Vahid Halilhodzic on Thursday, but the players know not to get too carried with their strong start under the Bosnian…
YOKOHAMA — Japan is riding high on a wave as it heads toward its opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, but the players know they can’t get carried away with their impressive start under Vahid Halilhodzic.
The Bosnian’s honeymoon period in charge of the Samurai Blue continued as they swept aside a beleaguered Iraq 4-0 in a friendly on Thursday, thanks to strikes by Keisuke Honda, Tomoaki Makino, Shinji Okazaki and Genki Haraguchi.
That made it three wins from three with 11 goals scored and just one conceded under Halilhodzic, but Yuto Nagatomo knows it’s not how you set out of the traps that is important but how you cross the line.
“There are peaks and troughs,” the Inter Milan fullback said postgame. “Under [former coach Alberto] Zaccheroni, too, we had a great start and also won the Asian Cup, but at the World Cup [in 2014] we were well and truly beaten.
“In the next three years, until the next World Cup, those ups and downs will come again, but if the players are not thrown off by them, then I believe we can achieve good results. I personally have faith and think that under this coach, we can achieve better results.”
Honda also alluded to an underlying cautiousness in a squad that he believes is still feeling the effects of a chastening experience in Brazil in 2014, when the team was eliminated at the group stage after picking up just one point from its three games.
“I think he’s thinking we got damaged from the last World Cup because we lost, so he wants to give us confidence,” the AC Milan star said about the new coach’s management style.
“He thinks we need to change the mind[set]. I don’t say [the damage is] conscious, but of course we lost. We are always thinking positively but we got damaged [subconsciously].”
Halilhodzic has referenced the need to strengthen Japan’s mentality, but defender Maya Yoshida made it clear that the coach is not only demanding improvements in that respect.
“Mentally, physically, everything,” the Southampton defender said. “Physically he says I have to be bigger, and mentally I have to be a leader of the team. And tactically many things — maybe I need a one-hour interview about the tactics.
“Every day he’s looking to talk about where we are going, how we play, what is our behavior, what we will make Japanese football – many things. If somebody tells me every time the same things automatically we understand and it gets imprinted.”
For Gaku Shibasaki — the Kashima Antlers midfielder who is steadily establishing himself as the successor to record-cap holder Yasuhito Endo, who has not been involved under Halilhodzic — tests against higher level teams are vital to gain mental strength.
“It comes down to the players’ awareness, but it’s hard to know unless we gain experience in closely contested games,” the 23-year-old said.
“I’d like for us to play games against stronger countries, not just in Asia, but also from Europe and South America. By competing against those kinds of teams we can improve technically, mentally and physically.”
There won’t be much chance of that in the immediate future, however, and for the time being, Japan will have to go through the motions of progressing from Group E of the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying.
Singapore — set to visit Saitama Stadium on Tuesday — Syria, Afghanistan and Cambodia won’t provide the toughest opposition, but Nagatomo knows you can only concentrate on beating who’s in front of you.
“It’s really one step at a time,” he said. “In the next game against Singapore, we just have to think about what type of soccer we have to play, and what kind of things we can do individually to contribute to the team.
“We shouldn’t think too far ahead — just focus on what each of us is capable of doing now for the good of the team.”