Japan up for Finals challenge

Forward Takuma Asano after giving Japan the lead against Australia. Yosuke Ideguchi added a second to confirm their position as group winners. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic is determined they go to Finals as challengers, not tourists.
Forward Takuma Asano after giving Japan the lead against Australia. Yosuke Ideguchi added a second to confirm their position as group winners. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic is determined they go to Finals as challengers, not tourists.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

TOKYO • Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has urged the country's football authorities to give him as much time as possible to prepare the team for next year's World Cup Finals in Russia.

The Samurai Blue qualified for their sixth successive Finals appearance with an emphatic 2-0 victory over Asian champions Australia in Saitama on Thursday.

Japan are now assured of finishing top of Group B in Asian qualifying before their final match away to second-placed Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on Tuesday.

Halilhodzic, however, has already turned his focus towards next year in Russia, giving the players dossiers on what he expects from them and how they can prepare to ensure they at least get to the second round.

The Bosnian, who assumed the role in 2015, has complained in the past about the lack of time he gets to spend with his players, but has been guaranteed by the Japan Football Association (JFA) four weeks with the squad before Russia.

"I am counting on the J-League and the JFA to put together a good schedule ahead of the World Cup," he told Kyodo News.

"When we go to the World Cup, we will have four weeks to get ready. Four weeks will allow me to mould the team the way I want to mentally and physically.

"Then we can go to the World Cup as challengers, not tourists."

Before the game, the coach's job was reportedly on the line, but JFA president Kozo Tashima said afterwards that he wanted Halilhodzic in charge for the Finals.

The nation was also behind Halilhodzic and his team.

"Japan break jinx," led the Sankei newspaper, referring to the team breaking a hoodoo by qualifying despite losing their opening game for the first time.

Meanwhile, a centre spread in the Asahi newspaper also credited Japan's young players under the headline: "New generation lead us to the world stage."

Celebrations even trickled through to normally impassive Japanese government officials.

"They have never progressed through the Asian qualifiers after losing the first match," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing at the Prime Minister's office. "They began from a difficult position but they shattered that jinx beautifully.

"This is the result of a team following the coach's philosophy through hard work. I hope they aim high at the World Cup."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'Japan up for Finals challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe