Vahid Halilhodzic has warned his Japan stars that he will only pick them if they are getting regular first-team football with their clubs. The 64-year-old Bosnian stunned fans when he dropped Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for Tuesday’s showdown with Saudi Arabia in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying. The trio, who have over 270 caps between them, have been struggling for playing time at AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Leicester City, respectively. And though excellent play from Honda, and involvement from Kagawa, proved central to the winner in a 2-1 victory, Halilhodzic has not relented.
“I keep telling the overseas players that they all have to play more for their clubs,” said the former Yugoslavia and Paris Saint-Germain forward. “I know they’re all in a difficult situation, but I tell them over and over again that they have to get into the starting line-up or move to a club where they will be able to play.
“Our team depends on the form of the overseas players and I never imagined the situation that we’ve been in for the past two or three months, where 80 or 90 per cent of our overseas players are not playing. I don’t know what will happen by March, but with that in mind, I am certainly looking at the young players.”
Japan captain Makoto Hasebe thinks Halilhodzic is sending out a positive directive.
“There were a lot of changes to the team and that stimulates competition and reinvigorates the team,” said the 32-year-old Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder. “I think it sends a good message to every player. If you’re not playing for your club, then the manager won’t play you. This was the last game of the year and we now have some time before the next one, so I think it sent a good message.”
Competition for places
Okazaki, who has hit 49 goals in 103 internationals, played 36 of Leicester’s 38 matches during their 2015/16 English Premier League-winning campaign, scoring a spectacular overhead-kick against Newcastle United in the run-in. However, the arrivals of Ahmed Musa and club-record signing Islam Slimani have limited the 30-year-old’s appearances this term.
Kagawa’s involvement at Dortmund has been harmed by the purchases of Ousmane Dembele, Mario Gotze, Emre Mor and Andre Schurrle, and the emergence of American starlet Christian Pulisic. Honda has been overlooked by new Milan coach Vincenzo Montella, who has made 18-year-old playmaker Manuel Locatelli a regular.
Japan are second in Group B, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference and above Australia by a point. The Samurai Blue’s Russia 2018 qualifying campaign resumes in March, when they face United Arab Emirates away and Thailand at home.
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).