Vahid Halilhodžić’s Samurai Blue of Japan have a couple of home matches to round out the second round of 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation. Their first assignment: Petar Segrt’s Afghanistan, the Lions of Khorasan, at the Saitama Stadium 2002 in Saitama, the home of the Urawa Red Diamonds.
On paper, this is a mismatch. Afghanistan are 2-0-4 (six points), are already eliminated from the World Cup, but are eying the qualifying third round of the AFC Asian Cup. To avoid the playoff round, a big scalp of the Samurai Blue will be needed, but will it happen? The Stoppage Time…says no. On the other hand, this will be a great opportunity for younger players to prove themselves ahead of the second round finale against Syria on Mar. 29, also at Saitama Stadium 2002.
“The important thing is to win the two matches and I want to continue our clean-sheet run during the qualifiers,” the Japan manager told BeIN Sports. “And we will be also ready to score as many goals as possible. Now, in the FIFA ranking, Japan is at second place in Asia. For the final qualifiers, we want to maintain this position as well.
“I am thinking to give chances to players who currently keep playing well for their own club. It’s up to players whether they grab that opportunity, but I am building various game plans where I give out such opportunities.”
“It’s a long time after November’s internationals, so it’s good to meet again, to go back to Japan and play for my home country,” said Southhampton’s Maya Yoshida. “It’s also important games for the qualification for the World Cup. Maybe the level of the opponent is not the same like in the Premier League, but it’s always an honour to be there and to play for my country.
“The level is a big difference I think, but always in home games we have to play well. We are hugely disappointed after the World Cup and Asian Cup, so we need to get back to there as well and make a good result. That’s why we need to play better and better every game.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:34 a.m. PT/6:34 a.m. ET. Here are 10 Bold Predictions for the match between Japan and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan will not score in this game.
Ovays Azizi will make under four saves.
Eiji Kawashima will make at least four saves.
Shinji Okazaki will score for Japan.
Maya Yoshida will score for Japan.
Keisuke Honda will score for Japan.
Shinji Kagawa will score for Japan.
At least 40 fouls will be whistled.
Under five cards will be issued.
No goals will be scored in stoppage time.
Syria have a similarly simple opponent in Cambodia to dispatch on the same day, so the stage will be set for a winner-take-all game on the 29th. Stay tuned for predictions of that contest. For this one, the Samurai Blue will slice and dice Afghanistan. Somebody bring in the cherry blossom petals.
Japan 4, Afghanistan 0