Japan made it comfortably into the final round of World Cup qualifiers, but know that improvements need to be made once the next stage gets underway…
SAITAMA – Japan may have secured progression to the final round of World Cup qualifiers with back-to-back 5-0 wins over Afghanistan and Syria, but the players aren’t resting on their laurels and are determined to improve as they edge closer to the 2018 finals in Russia.
Vahid Halilhodzic’s side made sure of top spot in Group E of the second round of qualifiers on Tuesday courtesy of a Syrian own goal, a Shinji Kagawa double, and strikes from Keisuke Honda and Genki Haraguchi.
The final three goals all came in the last eight minutes of the game, however, with the Samurai Blue also presenting Syria with a number of sights on goal in an open second half.
“The manner in which we kept pushing forwards was good and we created many chances, but on the other hand we left gaps at the back and gave the opponent a lot of opportunities to score,” Shinji Okazaki, made captain on his 100th appearance but unable to add to his 48 international goals, said after the game.
“Maybe that was ok today, but from now on we’ll be playing against stronger teams and whether to take risks or not when we have a one-goal lead is something we will have to keep in mind.”
Maya Yoshida agreed, and was adamant that the team needs to tighten up if they want to make it to a sixth consecutive World Cup.
“The next round will be more difficult for us so we need to organize much better than today,” the Southampton centerback said.
“If we give away chances like today it will be a problem for us, because the opponents’ level is completely different [in the final round of qualifiers].”
The shutout against Syria meant Japan made it through the eight-game stage without conceding once, but goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa also spotted areas in need of fine-tuning.
“We did very well and pressed well from the front, winning the ball in good areas,” the Urawa Reds stopper, who started six of the second round qualifiers, said.
“In the second half maybe the forward players got a little bit tired, so at those times it’s important that we organize well, and I have to contribute in that way by giving instructions.”
Honda sounded another note of caution, pointing out that the manner of qualification is ultimately irrelevant if, as in Brazil in 2014, the team doesn’t perform at the finals.
“In the end, if you don’t achieve results at the World Cup it doesn’t matter what you did beforehand. It’s a harsh world but all you are judged on is whether those three games [in the initial group stage at the World Cup] are good or bad.”
Indeed, the most recent such setback is still fresh in Yoshida’s mind.
“I remember the first game against Ivory Coast in Brazil, we had a little bit of a shock and panicked and we couldn’t manage the recovery.”
The 27-year-old thinks the team is better placed to cope in that respect now, though, with the majority of the squad increasingly accustomed to the top leagues in Europe.
“When players are used to playing against top class players it helps a lot in international games,” he said.
“For example, I’m always training with a Dutch international, Portuguese, Italian; that’s a lot of experience for me, and I’m going to try to give that to other players in Japan. That’s really important for the World Cup in Russia.”
Honda believes that the bond between the players and Halilhodzic is also vital to the team’s chances of success.
“He respects people underneath him and there’s no betrayal or blaming people in either direction,” he said. “I think he’s the kind of boss who can make a group who fight together until the end.”
The draw for the next round of qualifiers takes place on Apr. 12, with South Korea, Iran, and Asian Cup holder Australia potential opposition.