Competition heats up as Japan prepares for top-class tests


National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic demanded strong friendly opposition to help prepare Japan for next summer’s World Cup, and this coming week’s two fixtures certainly fit the bill.

Japan faces five-time world champion Brazil in Lille, France, on Friday before taking on European heavyweight Belgium four days later in Bruges. Brazil, which became the first team to qualify for Russia 2018, is probably the best team in the world on current form, while Belgium, boasting such formidable talent as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, cannot be far behind.

Japan, on the other hand, heads into both games without its most recognizable faces. Halilhodzic has chosen to leave Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki at home for the trip, opting instead to give a less-experienced group of players the chance to stake their claim for a place next summer’s squad.

“If the World Cup were to be held right now, there are maybe five or six players who I could say would be going,” Halilhodzic said upon arriving in France last weekend. “After that, it’s still a real competition for places. Who will be in the squad for the tournament? I don’t even know that myself.”

Given Halilhodzic’s track record in qualification, no one should doubt that he means it. While some coaches pay lip service to picking players on form ahead of reputation, Halilhodzic has consistently sprung surprises, dropping his big names for crucial games and throwing untested rookies in at the deep end.

So far, he has gotten away with it. World Cup qualification was achieved with relatively little fuss despite a difficult start, and young players such as Yuya Kubo, Yosuke Ideguchi and Takuma Asano have repaid their manager’s faith with a string of impressive performances.

How long his magic touch can last, however, is open to question. A 2-1 win over New Zealand and a 3-3 draw with Haiti at home last month produced very few positives, and Halilhodzic’s decision to drop his star players for this week’s trip appears to have ruffled a few feathers.

“To be honest, I wonder about the timing,” said Kagawa, who revealed that Halilhodzic had not contacted him to explain his omission. “These games are like a simulation of the World Cup. I wasn’t thinking of them just as friendly games at all.”

Kagawa’s recent good form for Borussia Dortmund and the fact that Halilhodzic has only a handful of matches left to decide his 23-man World Cup squad makes it is easy to understand his frustration. The outcome of this week’s games could also have a big psychological impact on the team going forward, and neither Brazil nor Belgium are likely to show any mercy.

“If we show even the slightest weakness, both Brazil and Belgium will exploit it,” Halilhodzic said as he named his squad. “We can’t let that happen. The players have to communicate and help each other along. We have to be organized, focused, brave, aggressive and ready to work hard to accomplish something big.”

Avoiding defeat against either team would certainly be an impressive achievement, but then positive friendly results in the buildup to a World Cup are no guarantee of success at the tournament itself. Japan beat Belgium and drew with the Netherlands under Alberto Zaccheroni at the same stage four years ago, but collapsed as soon as the World Cup began seven months later.

Many would like to see Halilhodzic replaced before he gets that far. Criticism of the spiky Bosnian is never far from the surface, and even World Cup qualification has done little to silence calls for a regime change before the tournament starts.

A winning performance over the coming week, however, would surely put that argument to bed. Japan has never beaten Brazil in 11 attempts, and if Halilhodzic turns out to be the one who delivers that prized scalp, his authority would be beyond reproach.

“You have to imagine that we could draw these two teams in our World Cup group,” he said. “Instead of having a complex or being afraid, I want us to show our strengths and be brave.”

Whatever the results, the coming week should be an eventful one.

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