Tomoaki Makino has warned his Japan team-mates that anything less than victory at home to Saudi Arabia would leave them facing an uphill struggle to claim one of Group B’s two automatic tickets to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The Japanese are third, three points behind the Saudis and one shy of Australia, who are away to Thailand.
Worryingly, after the game in Saitama on 15 November, the Samurai Blue’s remaining five qualifiers include away tests in United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the visit of Australia.
“It’s important to play good football, but we as the national team have a responsibility to win,” Makino told reporters following a training session. “Depending on whether we win or lose here, the away games could become very difficult. We’ve got to go all out and fight to the death.
“We’ll be at home, where there will be lots of fans, and it’s the last game of the year. The result will change next year’s outlook for us.”
Winning over the fans
First, Vahid Halilhodzic's team host Oman in a friendly – one Makino believes they can use to uplift the supporters.
“You can look at the Saudi game in two ways,” said the 29-year-old Urawa Red Diamonds centre-back. “You can look at it as us having our back against the wall or see it as an opportunity to turn things around, which makes the Oman game crucial.
“It’s not any old friendly you play to work on your match fitness. The coach always talks about winning, but we need to make sure we do that to create a positive atmosphere for the Saudi game.”
In Saitama, Japan lost 2-1 to United Arab Emirates and beat Iraq by the same score in the third round of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018. They also played a match there at the 2002 World Cup, when goals from Takayuki Suzuki and Junichi Inamoto earned a 2-2 draw with Belgium that helped the Samurai Blue finish top of Group H.
Japan have won two and lost two of their last four encounters with Saudi Arabia. A Shinji Okazaki hat-trick inspired them to a 5-0 victory in the last edition of the fixture at the AFC Asian Cup 2011.