Already-qualified Japan have vowed not to treat lightly Tuesday’s 2018 World Cup qualifying encounter against Saudi Arabia – heartening the UAE’s albeit unlikely bid to reach Russia.
Vahid Halilhodzic's side clinched a spot at a sixth successive global finals when they defeated Australia 2-0 in Saitama last Thursday. With the win, they sealed top spot in Group B.
Japan round off their campaign at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah therefore with little to play for other than pride, although the match matters considerably more to the Saudis.
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Sitting second in the group, Bert van Marwijk’s men will most probably need victory to take the second automatic berth ahead of third-placed Australia. The current Asian champions are behind the Saudis only on goal difference and host bottom side Thailand in Melbourne on Tuesday.
The UAE, meanwhile, are one spot further back and thus retain slim hopes of making a second World Cup. Edgardo Bauza's side require victory against Iraq in Jordan, while also needing other results to go their way and for a significant swing in goal difference. Third place in the group secures a play-off place.
The UAE will look to Japan to do them a favour against Saudi Arabia, with striker Shinji Okazaki’s most recent comments sure to raise morale within the Emirati camp.
"Every game from now until the finals will become crucial, in particular this game," the Leicester City forward was quoted as saying by the Kyodo news agency. "[Saudi Arabia] will be making a killer effort to qualify and, even though we are already through to the finals, if we don't go into the game with the same spirit then I don't think we are going to win it."
Having omitted a number of his more established stars in last week’s victory against Australia, Halilhodzic is expected to recall to the starting line-up Okazaki and veteran Keisuke Honda. Captain Makoto Hasebe misses the match after withdrawing from the squad, while Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa is not available either.
Honda, one of Japan’s most experienced players alongside Hasebe, said he aims to stave off the apparent changing of the guard within the Japan national team.
"It is natural and not just in the world of soccer," the former AC Milan midfielder said. "Everyone dies in the end and soccer players retire and I will retire.
"There are a number of players, experienced players, including myself, that are reaching a crucial period. I am directing my eyes towards myself and I want to win that battle.
"I still think I can improve and want to turn up the power in every aspect of my game."