Vahid Halilhodzic admitted he made a big decision by benching Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for the vital 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier at home to Saudi Arabia, but has revelled in collecting a “huge” victory. A Hiroshi Kiyotake penalty and a Genki Haraguchi goal earned a 2-1 win that means Japan will finish the year second in Group B, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference and above Australia, who were surprisingly held 2-2 in Thailand, by a point.
“The players put in a great performance, and it was a deserved victory against a very good Saudi Arabia side,” said the former Yugoslavia and Paris Saint-Germain forward. “This is a huge win for us. I want to thank the fans for pushing us on.”
Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki – who have over 270 caps between them – all came off the bench in Saitama. And excellent play from Honda, and involvement from Kagawa, proved central to the winning goal.
“This win is for everyone,” said Halilhodzic. “Everyone in the squad helped us get this win. We have had some difficulties lately, but the players’ courage and determination has delivered us this very important result.”
Kiyotake converted a penalty in Japan’s warm-up win over Oman on Friday, and revealed that influenced where he directed his attempt against the Saudis.
“I put my penalty to the other side in the Kirin Cup game, so I watched the keeper and stayed calm,” said the 27-year-old Sevilla midfielder. “The team was united tonight and that was the biggest thing for us. It was a difficult game but we kept our balance and that was very important. The games will keep coming and we want to give it our all next year.”
Japan first appeared at the World Cup in 1998, but are now aiming to participate for the sixth time in succession. Korea Republic are the only Asian nation to have competed in more editions of the tournament (nine).