Football: Japan's build-up anything but easy

Honda's poor form, Hasebe's injury and loss in opener provide backdrop for UAE qualifier

TOKYO • Japan's Keisuke Honda has blamed his own shortcomings for sparking debate on his international future before today's World Cup qualifier in the United Arab Emirates, the domestic media reported on Tuesday.

Once a talismanic figure for Japan, the 30-year-old squeaked into coach Vahid Halilhodzic's squad for today's clash despite being buried deep on the bench at AC Milan for much of the season.

"I do understand people asking how a person who's not playing for his club should be picked for his country," Honda told Japan's Nikkan Sports daily.

"Of course, it's not just in Japan, or in the world of football or any sport, where that's an issue. What's most important is to work hard and produce results.

"The fact people are saying all sorts of things about me is down to my own failure."


Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda training with his club AC Milan. He has spent much of the season warming the bench, sparking criticism over his place in the national squad and talk about his international future. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japan, who are level on points with Saudi Arabia at the top of Group B, lost 1-2 at home to the Emirates last September in the opening game of the final round of Asian qualifiers, after a "ghost goal" from Takuma Asano was disallowed.

Luck returned in their last game, however, when they were awarded a controversial penalty in a 2-1 home win over the Saudis.

Both teams have 10 points from five games, with Asian champions Australia a point behind in the chase for the group's two automatic qualifying spots.

Japan's preparations for today's game in Al Ain have been further complicated by a knee injury to captain Makoto Hasebe, which could require surgery.

"I deeply apologise for not being able to join the team for such a big game," he told reporters.

"It was a bitter decision to take but I have 100, 120 per cent trust in my team-mates."

The Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder will also miss Japan's home qualifier against Thailand next Tuesday.

Playmaker Shinji Kagawa called on Japan to produce a performance worthy of one of region's best teams against the Middle Eastern side who have frustrated the Blue Samurai in the past, notably when dumping them out of the 2015 Asian Cup in the quarter-finals.

"Obviously it's a game we have to win," said the Borussia Dortmund player. "We did ourselves no favours losing to the Emirates at home. It will be a tough game in hot conditions, but we have to make sure we complete the job."

In Group B's other matches today, bottom side Thailand host Saudi Arabia, while Australia travel to Iraq.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's build-up anything but easy'. Print Edition | Subscribe