Football: Japan seeking to restore pride

Keisuke Honda signing an autograph for a young fan at Bishan stadium. He is one of the many Europe-based players that coach Vahid Halilhodzic called up for the match against the Lions on Thursday.
Keisuke Honda signing an autograph for a young fan at Bishan stadium. He is one of the many Europe-based players that coach Vahid Halilhodzic called up for the match against the Lions on Thursday.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The Samurai Blue will face humidity and jet lag, but they are not deterred by conditions

A lone handheld flag bearing the Rising Sun flutters, the crowd of 300 fans, made up mainly of school children clad uniformly in blue, cheers. Keisuke Honda acknowledges the fans at the Bishan Stadium, the support fuelling his resolve to beat the Lions.

When the two national football sides last met in June, it was Singapore that came away from the Group E World Cup qualifier with smiles after the Lions survived a siege unscathed with a 0-0 draw in Saitama.

"We'll try our best and give what our supporters expect - victory," said Honda in English. "It was an unexpected draw the last time around."

BACK TO BEING NO. 1

We are Japan, we have to get back our status - top of Asia.

Maya Yoshida, who plays for English Premier League club Southampton

He and his team-mates had their first training session in Singapore yesterday evening.

And while Japan, ranked 50th in the world, are streets ahead of Singapore (152nd), the AC Milan forward knows the Lions cannot be underestimated. He said: "The last time Singapore played us, they analysed us and played very well. It was a difficult game.

"We have to restore our pride this time, especially when there are so many fans who are coming to support us."

Restoring Japanese pride seemed to be the agenda of the Samurai Blue as they trained yesterday, with captain Makoto Hasebe stating that they will not take things lightly on Thursday evening at the National Stadium.

" Every match we play in Asia is always challenging. We are not resting on our laurels," he insisted.

Japan defender Maya Yoshida, who plays for English Premier League side Southampton, noted that Singapore's massed defence was hard to break down and he is expecting more of the same at Kallang.

He said: "It is always difficult to play against a team when they defend for 90 minutes.

"Our defence has to concentrate the entire time to watch out for any counter-attack ."

The Japanese team touched down at Changi Airport at 1am yesterday morning and had light training without tactical work at Bishan.

Coach Vahid Halilhodzic called up his strongest possible squad, summoning his Europe-based stars like Honda, Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City).

But Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who scored against Schalke on Sunday, was notably missing from training as he was en route to Singapore from Germany at press time.

For Yoshida, another factor that could have a bearing on Japan's performance is the Singapore weather.

"We'll be playing in tough conditions and it is very hot and humid here. We're used to playing in temperatures between 10 and 15 deg C, and we have to adjust," said Yoshida, who added that jet lag was also another factor the players, particularly those based in Europe, would have to combat.

Following Lions goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud's stellar display at Saitama in June, when he pulled off 18 saves to keep a clean sheet, Japan have marked him as a player to watch.

"The goalkeeper played very well in the last match in Japan. We are expecting a tough match again," said Japan's goalkeeper coach Ricardo Lopez.

But that will not deter the Japanese in their quest for victory, according to Yoshida.

"We are Japan, we have to get back our status - top of Asia," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Japan seeking to restore pride'. Print Edition | Subscribe