TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan are battling dissent within their ranks and the angst has reached a point that some local players would rather Australia won Thursday’s crunch World Cup qualifier, Socceroos defender Milos Degenek said on Monday.
The Samurai Blue face Australia at Saitama stadium in a clash that could prove decisive for both nations’ hopes of claiming an automatic ticket to the finals in Russia next year.
Japan, who lead Asia’s Group B by a point with two matches remaining, can book their spot with a win over third-placed Australia but defeat would put their campaign on a knife-edge as they travel to second-placed Saudi Arabia in the last round.
Local media have reported that the Japan Football Association will sack Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic if the team loses to the Socceroos.
Degenek, who plays for J-League side Yokohama, said his club mates had “mixed emotions” about the match.
“In my team and my club, from what I’ve heard, it’s kind of silly to say, but they kind of want us to win,” the 23-year-old told reporters.
“They’ve got different reasons which I won’t mention, but they don’t all agree with the Japanese system and the coaching staff.
“They’ve got a lot of pressure on them and they’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves as well.
“They’re looking at this as the do-or-die game in many aspects. The pressure on them is to win at home, not to go to Saudi Arabia and have to do the business there.
“They’re not the best at dealing with pressure so we’ll see what happens,” Degenek added.
“I’ve had a lot of supporters from my club wish that we win. A lot of my players who are also Japanese wish that we win.”
Australia, who are third in the group but level with Saudi Arabia on points, will be content with a draw before hosting lowly Thailand in Melbourne in their final qualifier.
They have lost captain and holding midfielder Mile Jedinak due to a long-term groin problem but have been handed a boost with China-based defender Trent Sainsbury declaring himself fit after recovering from a hamstring strain.
Australia were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Japan in their qualifier last year and have not beaten them in their past six matches but Socceroos goalkeeper Mat Ryan was also happy to load the pressure onto the hosts.
“Probably the pressure has been building from the Asian Cup, where they didn’t perform as well as they would’ve liked,” Ryan, who has a winners’ medal from the 2015 tournament which Japan exited in the quarter-finals.
“A lot of the European players probably aren’t getting the game time which they’ve come to expect to in the past. But those little things count for nothing if us as a team, we can’t take advantage of that.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Nick Mulvenney