TOKYO Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has called winger Manabu Saito into his squad for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Iraq and Australia after losing Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami to injury.
Striker Muto sustained a right knee injury playing for German club Mainz in the Europa League in midweek, while Usami is one of a string of attacking players on the injury list at Bundesliga outfit FC Augsburg.
Japan, bidding for a sixth consecutive World Cup finals appearance, made a disappointing start to the final stage of Asian qualifying with a stunning 2-1 home loss to the United Arab Emirates.
The four-times Asian champions rebounded with a 2-0 victory over Thailand but can ill afford another slip up against Iraq in Saitama on Thursday ahead of their crunch Group B clash with Australia in Melbourne the following Tuesday.
Usami and Muto came on as substitutes against Thailand but Saito will do well to get on the bench with Europe-based forwards Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Genki Haraguchi and Takuma Asano already in the squad.
The top two from both of Asia's six-team groups qualify directly for Russia in 2018 with the two third-placed teams playing off to decide who takes on a CONCACAF nation for another spot in the finals.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)