Vahid Halilhodzic has stressed that Japan must find an out-and-out goal-scorer and urged his players to develop greater fighting spirit. Five players have been on target for the Samurai Blue in their five Group B games in Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, but only one, Hertha Berlin attacker Genki Haraguchi, has netted more than once.

“Right now, we’re getting goals from various positions: from centre-back, from midfield, from the forwards,” said Halilhodzic. “It’s a good thing, but what I want is a pure, out-and-out goal-scorer. Someone who can take the one or two chances he may or may not have in a game.

“I must find this type of player – or develop one, somehow. Every good team has one, a player who finds a way to score not just when he is on a roll, but also when the tide is against him.

“It’s possible to develop good strikers and good goalkeepers, and it’s critical that you do. All the best countries have good players at these important positions. If you don’t, you cannot expect results. It’s the same at club level. Bayern, Barcelona, Real, Chelsea, Manchester United — they all have them. And we need to conduct our search.

“We’re averaging 22 shots a game, which is a lot. In the J.League Championship, how many did Urawa and Kashima have combined (16 and 20 in the first and second legs respectively)? So we’re creating many opportunities. But the problem is only 42 per cent of our shots are on target. We need to get it up over 50 per cent.”

Firm warning for Honda
One of Japan’s finest finishers is Keisuke Honda, who has scored 36 goals in 86 caps and sits fifth on their list of all-time leading marksmen. The 30-year-old attacking midfielder was, however, surprisingly dropped for the Samurai Blue’s last Russia 2018 qualifier – a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia – and, having started just one game for AC Milan in Serie A this season, risks being left out of the squad altogether.

“I need Honda to play more on a regular basis,” said Halilhodzic. “The national team needs Honda. He is our best goal-scorer and best passer.

“But if he doesn’t play enough, I think the message I have sent is clear. I’ve explained to Honda that if he wants to keep playing for the national team, he has to play more.

“I told him the team belongs to everyone, that the team is not his own private team. I would like to see Keisuke starting for his club but if he can’t, he should consider going elsewhere.”

Champagne and sake
Japan are second in their Russia 2018 preliminary pool, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference. Australia and United Arab Emirates are one point behind. Three of the Samurai Blue’s remaining five games are away, and Halilhodzic has called for greater fighting spirit to push them to a sixth successive World Cup.

“There’s a difference between Europe and Japan with regards to fighting spirit, just a sheer lack in the number of challenges made in Japan,” said the 64-year-old Bosnian. “Real and Barcelona, they only have a split-second on the ball. They have to react even before they have possession.

“But in Japan? You have a lot of time. You have so much time you could drink champagne and sake. You could even eat because you have so much time on the ball.

“The real battle begins from here. But as long as we find the time to prepare, we can play well whether it’s at home or away.”