Japan face uphill battle to qualify for 2018 World Cup

Never in the modern format of AFC qualification for the World Cup has a team that lost its first match gone on to qualify for the quadrennial tournament.

It’s an ominous sign for Vahid Halilhodzic and his Japan side after they were stunned 2-1 by a dogged UAE outfit in front of almost 60,000 fans at Saitama Stadium on Thursday evening.

On a night where most of the opening final round qualifiers went pretty much to script the Emiratis pulled off arguably their most famous victory.

To many that honour had previously belonged to the side which dumped Japan from the quarter-finals of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup on penalties but this is a night that will live long in the memory of all UAE football fans and which could just mark the beginning of a real struggle for Japan to reach Russia.

Halilhodzic had been outspoken pre-match in decrying that he only had two days with his full squad to prepare whereas the UAE had enjoyed a month-long training camp in Spain and another mini-camp in China in the buildup to this match.

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That overlooks both the fact that coach Mahdi Ali was without ten players for that preparation due to ACL commitments with their clubs and also that any nation which boasts players on the books of AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and reigning Premier League champions, Leicester, should probably not be losing at home to a country which, bar their lone appearance in 1990, has never before even looked like reaching the World Cup.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in a match that where Japan, whilst below their best, still created enough chances to win a dozen matches and were also denied what appeared to be a legitimate late goal for substitute Takuma Asano after replays showed that his scuffed 77th minute effort had actually crossed the line.

Halilhodzic went on a series of winding explanations post-match which included firstly taking blame for the defeat then questioning his players both collectively and individually as well as saying he didn’t want to use the officiating as an excuse and then doing precisely that.

Most presciently though he noted what he termed the naivety of the Japan squad and that’s an issue that’s long caused concerns.

As soon as the UAE had equalized and even more so after they took the lead they were content to slow the game down at every turn, drawing and receiving fouls and having multiple players go down ‘injured’ with Japan doing them a series of favours by stopping the game rather than allowing the referee to make that decision.

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Just as much as that is an area of concern so too were aspects of their general play with combinations looking awkward, passes being frequently misplaced and runs not made off the ball when space and time suggested they should have been.

Defensively the side has long had issues with mobility and there are also some serious question marks over the goalkeeping, especially given the odd decision not to call up the outstanding Olympic keeper, Kosuke Nakamura, who many feel is not just the future but also the present despite being just 21.

Technically there’s no question that Japan are amongst Asia’s elite but it’s aspects of their mentality on the bigger stages that have consistently been exposed and that was also the case here.

Players engaged in running battles with the match officials and also failed to track some of the wonderful movement on and off the ball that saw the dynamic UAE attacking trident of Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and two-goal hero Ahmed Khalil cause a whole range of problems.

Coach Ali was at pains to point out post-match that while this is a result which will give his side great confidence they ‘haven’t achieved anything yet’ and that it’s just one of ten steps to reaching Russia but what it has done is confirm that this group is an incredibly tight section.

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On a night where Australia saw off an Iraq side that were determined to try and play for a point in Perth and Saudi Arabia edge Thailand – it’s the result in Japan that will have set off the most discussion.

Could this be the best moment that the UAE have had of reaching the World Cup since Italia 90?

Almost certainly the answer is yes, they possess a tactically astute manager who has nurtured the bulk of this squad through the various national youth levels, a wonderful physical and technical presence in the reigning AFC Asian Player of the Year, Khalil, and quite simply an exquisite magician in the shape of Abdulrahman.

The 24-year-old could walk into almost any top-flight European club tomorrow and here again was at his sublime best, threading a range of passes that would make the likes of Iniesta sit up and take notice, constantly working through multiple defenders and pulling out a range of trick shots for good measures, back-heel passes, no-look passes and all the feints and shimmies in his armory.

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The Al Ain man is, without doubt, the most talented play-maker anywhere in Asia and it’s a joy for football fans on the continent to be able to watch his gifts up close.

Not so for Japan who were constantly terrorised by Abdulrahman as he drifted out to both flanks, then centrally, then deep and in concert with his support cast caused the four-time Asian champion no end of problems.

The task doesn’t get any easier though as they return home to face the Socceroos whilst Japan can simply not afford – even at this early stage – to slip up against the Thais in Bangkok on Tuesday.

This is what Asian football has long craved, the emergence of genuine contenders to challenge the accepted hierarchy and in Mahdi Ali’s UAE the first of those has announced themselves in impressive style.

Scott McIntyre

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