TOKYO (Reuters) - High-flying Japan’s final World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday is a dead rubber but the team still regard it as a ‘crucial’ clash, according to striker Shinji Okazaki.
Japan booked their ticket to Russia with a 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama on Thursday, meaning Vahid Halilhodzic’s side can afford to ease off against the Saudis in Jeddah.
The Green Falcons, second in Group B of Asian qualifying, will be desperate for a win over the Samurai Blue, however, to snatch the second direct berth to Russia and deny third-placed Australia.
Halilhodzic has rested captain Makoto Hasebe and also left Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa behind but Leicester City striker Okazaki was adamant that Japan would not take the match lightly.
“Every game from now until the finals will become crucial, in particular this game,” Kyodo news agency quoted him as saying at training in Jeddah.
“They (Saudi Arabia) will be making a killer effort to qualify and even though we are already through to the finals, if we don’t go into the game with the same spirit then I don’t think we are going to win it.”
Level with Saudi Arabia on points, Ange Postecoglou’s Australia will hope Japan are as good as Okazaki’s word and can beat the Saudis or at least hold them to a draw.
The Asian Cup champions will be favoured to beat lowly Thailand in Melbourne in their last qualifier on Tuesday but even a dominant win may not be enough to grab the second automatic ticket to Russia, with Saudi Arabia two better in goal difference.
The third placed side can still qualify for Russia but must negotiate a tortuous series of playoffs.
However, that is of little concern to Japan, whose players have their own internal battles to impress Halilhodzic and keep their place on his World Cup squad.
The team may have been overshadowed by local media reports of dissent within the ranks and speculation over their Bosnian coach’s future in the leadup to the Australia game.
Yet there was little disharmony evident on the field against Australia at Saitama Stadium, where Halilhodzic felt comfortable enough to leave some of his most seasoned campaigners on the bench and let the younger brigade dictate proceedings.
Okazaki played only a handful of minutes late on against the Socceroos while stalwart Keisuke Honda never got off the bench.
“It is natural and not just in the world of soccer,” former AC Milan midfielder Honda told Kyodo of the new generation.
”Everyone dies in the end and soccer players retire and I will retire.
”There are a number of players, experienced players, including myself, that are reaching a crucial period. I am directing my eyes towards myself and I want to win that battle.
“I still think I can improve and want to turn up the power in every aspect of my game.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Greg Stutchbury