Al Ain: It is no exaggeration to say that Thursday’s Group A clash between the United Arab Emirates and Japan could be one of the key turning points on the Road to Russia 2018.
With second placed Japan just a point ahead of their hosts, and having lost 2-1 to the Emiratis in the first meeting on Matchday One, coach Vahid Halilhodzic is in no doubts of the importance of the fixture.
The-AFC.com spoke to the man at the helm of the Samurai Blue ahead of the tie at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium to find out the current state of the Japan side as well as his thoughts on his upcoming opponents.
Q: How has the preparation been ahead of the resumption of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers?
While I was back in Europe over the last few weeks, I visited almost all our players based in Europe, and our coaching staff at the same time kept contact with our Japan-based players.
We have taken the last two to three months to prepare for the coming matches. Obviously, I must think what is best for us to win a very tough upcoming game on Thursday.
Q: Can you tell us your thoughts ahead of Thursday’s meeting with the United Arab Emirates, how difficult an away game will this be for you and your side?
The stadium in Al Ain can create a special atmosphere as it did so at the AFC Champions League final last year. That can give us extra pressure, and this time we need experience and strong mentality to overcome UAE there. There are also various things to consider, such as climate difference, long travel, time difference and more. I will have to tell our players some extra small details to prepare for the game, too.
Q: What is your impression of the UAE team?
I have thoroughly studied them over the last few months, and since the first match with us, I haven’t seen big changes in the way they play on the pitch. However, their league does give them a break to allow time for their national team, which will mean they will have extra rest and preparation.
They have very good players in midfield. Omar Abdulrahman has wonderful quality and can be dangerous. When he has the ball, you know that there is always a threat. But I felt we coped well with them last time. They played very aggressively and it could be a physical game.
Q: What do you expect to see from your players on Thursday?
I will select a team that can physically compete against their opponent, and so I will need those who are experienced. Some of our core players haven’t played much in their domestic leagues lately, and I usually don’t select any players who are not ready, but I will consider various things to decide my selection for the coming games.
There is a possibility of bringing some younger players into the side if they meet my criteria. I may know our opponents more than our players condition-wise.
Overall, we are making good progress both in offense and defence. Particularly in defence, as we gave away only one goal from an open play over some 20 games we have played so far since I came, which is wonderful.
Our defenders regularly play for their club with good discipline and collectiveness, and [Makoto] Hasebe is very important for us and has got good experience and presence. I want our players to show courage in offense and defence and play like samurai on the pitch.
Photo: Lagardère Sports