One of Asia’s great footballing rivalries resumes this week, when Japan hosts the Socceroos in a World Cup qualifier. Australia has yet to defeat the Blue Samurai on Japanese soil. At the same time, however, Japan is yet to defeat the Socceroos in a World Cup qualifier.
When the two face off in Saitama on Thursday night vying for the top two automatic qualifying spots in the group, the Blue Samurai will enter the match knowing a win over Australia will send it to the World Cup finals in Russia next year.
On the other hand, a loss to the Socceroos would mean Japan taking the risk of going into a series of playoffs.
The pressure has been building on Bosnian-born Japanese coach Vahid Halihodzic ahead of this penultimate group match, especially following two recent draws against Iraq and Syria.
“I have been told that we have never beaten Australia in a [final-round] qualifier, but we had a chance to beat them the last time we played them,” Halilhodzic said.
“This has been the most difficult list I have had to put together.
“This team has character and that is what we need for this [Australian] game. The players have to be samurai warriors. I want the players who take part in the game to show that spirit and have no fear.
“It’s a difficult situation but I believe my players can rise to the occasion.”
He revealed that he has been doing his research, analysing the Socceroos for the past two months and also went to Russia to watch them in the Confederations Cup.
“They had virtually their best squad and are a strong physical team,” he said. “They have strengths but also weaknesses.”
The wily coach has shown a preference for the 4-3-3 formation in Japan’s recent matches, while Socceroos boss Postecoglou has persisted with his three at the back system. Whether he persists with that system on Thursday remains to be seen.
Halihodzic has named a 27-player squad for the remaining qualifying matches against the Soccerooss and the Saudis. Fourteen of the 27 players are based in Europe, with most in the Bundesliga.
Key players include midfielder Keisuke Honda who has just joined Mexican club Pachuca, midfielder Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) and skipper Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), as well as striker Osako from Cologne, with some of these players coming back from absence due to injury.
Australia will be without skipper Mile Jedinak who has ruled himself out after fitness concerns.
Blue Samurai squad:
Goalkeepers – Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).
Defenders – Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Genta Miura (Gamba Osaka).
Midfielders – Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Yojiro Takahagi (FC Tokyo), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Yuki Kobayashi (Heerenveen), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka).
Forwards – Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Yuya Osako (Cologne), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz), Kenyu Sugimoto (Cerezo Osaka), Yuya Kubo (Gent), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart).