Saudi loss eases Japan's way to Finals

TOKYO • Saudi Arabia's loss on Tuesday has greatly simplified the maths ahead of the crunch World Cup qualifier between Japan and Australia today: A victory at Saitama Stadium will secure a ticket to Russia for the winners.

Japanese and Australian fans alike would have good reason to send messages of thanks to the United Arab Emirates players after their 2-1 victory over the Saudis in Al Ain increased the likelihood of both their teams progressing.

The three-way battle for the top two places in Group B that brings direct qualification for Russia will still go down to next week's final round of matches, when Japan go to Saudi Arabia and Australia host winless Thailand.

However, Japan's one-point cushion over the other two meant a win today would always have secured a sixth straight trip to the Finals, but now they can afford a draw with Australia and still progress by avoiding defeat in Jeddah.

Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has been under pressure after a stuttering campaign and Australia's Yokohama-based defender Milos Degenek suggested that some in Japan would prefer an Australia win today to get rid of the Bosnian.

However, that is not likely to be the prevailing sentiment inside the camp, as the hosts plot a first World Cup qualifying victory over the Australians in eight attempts.

Five of those have been draws and their last meeting, a 1-1 stalemate in Melbourne last October, was typical of the cagey affairs between the two in a rivalry that has intensified since Australia joined the Asian confederation in 2006.

"I don't know how Australia are going to come at us but we are going to be more offensive and aggressive than the last away game against them," Japan defender Maya Yoshida told Kyodo. "We were a little bit too defensive last time but it's a home game and we are going to be more aggressive."

While Halilhodzic has injury concerns over midfielders Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe as well as forward Keisuke Honda, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou has been robbed of his inspirational captain Mile Jedinak, who is unfit, for the last two qualifiers.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi loss eases Japan's way to Finals'. Print Edition | Subscribe