Japan focus on World Cup qualifiers against Saudis, Australia

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South Korean Kim Min-jae, left, fights for the ball with Lebanese Hilal Alhelwe in the final round of the Asian Zone A group A qualifier for the Qatar 2022 World Cup at the Cup Stadium Suwon World in Suwon, South Korea on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo / Ahn Young-joon)

PA

A loss to Oman and a narrow victory over China have bolstered Japanese manager Hajime Moriyasu’s attention ahead of back-to-back World Cup qualifiers against Saudi Arabia and Australia.

The Japanese team travel to the Saudi capital knowing that a loss on Thursday will be a major setback in their bid for a seventh consecutive appearance at the World Cup.

Only the top two from each group of six teams in the final round of Asian qualifying are guaranteed a place in Qatar next year. After two matches, Japan are already three points behind Saudi Arabia and Australia in Group B.

“We don’t have a lot of time, but the players need to change what they do with their clubs and understand our team concept,” said Moriyasu. “We didn’t do it last time around, and we need to make sure we sort it out.”

It is particularly important that Japan keep in touch with the leaders of the group as the team are in action five days later at home against Australia, who have won 10 consecutive qualifying games.

After comfortable victories over China and Vietnam, the Socceroos are regaining their confidence.

“They’re starting to believe they can win every game which is fantastic and that’s what I expect,” said Australian coach Graham Arnold. “Plus, they believe in each other, which is very, very good.”

Unable to play qualifying at home due to travel restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australians will face Oman in Doha, Qatar, before traveling to Japan. Arnold had to sign Sunderland defender Bailey Wright for the qualifying pair when Milos Degenek was sent off after testing positive for coronavirus during pre-departure screening at his club Red Star Belgrade.

China and Vietnam will meet in the United Arab Emirates in the other Group B game, with both teams chasing their first points of the round.

In Group A, South Korea, who are aiming for 10 successive World Cup appearances, have four points but have played both home matches so far. A 0-0 draw against Iraq on September 2 was followed by a narrow 1-0 victory over Lebanon. Three points against Syria on Thursday are important for the Koreans, as the game is followed five days later by a difficult trip to Tehran to face group leader Iran.

South Korea can call on talented English Premier League stars including Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan, but those players were only due to show up for training around 48 hours before the game against Syria.

Son complained about the jet lag during last month’s qualifiers, and South Korea’s coach Paulo Bento must factor the travel and condition of his European-based players into his planning for each international game.

“We are going to manage the players in the way that we think is best for the team and for the players,” said Bento. “We should play with the best players every time, because we have goals to achieve. I will continue to pick and choose the best for each game.

Elsewhere in Group A on Thursday, Iran faces the UAE in Tehran and Lebanon and Iraq meet in Doha.

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