Should UAE complete the double over Japan in Al Ain on Thursday, they could move from fourth to first in Group B with just four games left in qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
To move top, it would take two other results going the Whites’ way but whatever happens elsewhere, victory over the four-time Asian champions would be a huge step on the way to Russia 2018 and a second-ever World Cup.
Japan have bounced back from their opening day loss at the hands of UAE, regarded as a shock in the Far East, to take ten points from the next four games. The Samurai Blue arrive second in the group, level on ten points with leaders Saudi Arabia, one ahead of both Australia and Thursday’s opponents, with only the top two qualify automatically.
When it comes to Japan, it is easy to focus on the big-name stars such as AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund. That, however, would be a mistake. The two didn’t even start the last qualifier, a 2-1 win at home to Saudi Arabia in November.
Honda’s only goal in the group came early against UAE on September 1, causing many of the almost 60,000 fans at Saitama Stadium to sit back in expectation of a home win. Ahmed Khalil had other plans, however, and his double gave the visitors a famous 2-1 victory.
And all is not quite well with the blond bombshell, who has barely played for his club side since then. There was plenty of speculation in the Tokyo media that coach Vahid Halilhodzic would not select Honda for this game after past warnings about the dangers of not playing regular club football.
It means that Japan’s main threat is no longer ‘Emperor Keisuke’, but Genki Haraguchi. Without the attacking midfielder, the team would already be out of the running for a sixth successive World Cup.
Of the seven goals scored since Honda’s opener, Haraguchi has four, one in each game. UAE is the only team in the group that the Hertha Berlin star has not netted against.
Such exploits have helped lift the pressure on Halilhodzic though doubts remain as to whether the Bosnian is the right coach with the right temperament and approach for Japan.
A win for Japan in Al Ain would go down very well back home, putting the Samurai Blue, who are sweating on the fitness of captain Makoto Hasebe, into a very good position.
BIG GAMES ELSEWHERE
Saudi Arabia just about stayed top despite the defeat in Japan. A game in Thailand against the bottom team may sound like a simple three points for the Green Falcons but the War Elephants were unlucky to lose 1-0 to a late penalty in Riyadh in the opening game.
Thailand are improving and were unlucky to only draw 2-2 with Australia in Bangkok in November. Bert Van Marwijk and his men will not find it easy in ‘The City of Angels’, though the absence of influential midfielder Sarach Yooyen is a blow for the hosts.
What happens in Iran will be of interest. Iraq host Australia in Tehran in desperate need of a win with just three points. The 2007 Asian champions have been unlucky so far, especially against Saudi Arabia, conceding two late and disputed penalties. It was soon followed by the loss of a well-deserved point as Japan scored a heartbreaking 95th minute winner in October.
The Lions of Mesopotamia have been preparing well in Dubai and are fresh. They had a good 1-0 win over an under-strength Iran team in Tehran at the weekend and will be ready for the Socceroos who may well be looking for Tim Cahill to pop up with one of his trademark, and vital, goals.
Over in Group A, there is an all-Middle Eastern meeting as Iran goes to Qatar. A win for the leaders in Doha and then three points at home to China five days later would have Iran looking very good for a first-ever successive World Cup.
The team may not have conceded a goal yet in this round but have forwards in good form in Europe. Reza Ghoochannejhad has been banging them in for Heerenveen and is the second leading goalscorer in the Dutch league. Coach Carlos Queiroz can also call upon Sardar Azmoun from Russian team Rostov, perhaps the best striker in Asia at the moment.
Qatar have a disappointing four points from five games and can’t afford another defeat especially with a tough trip to Uzbekistan next week. The Uzbeks are third and take on Syria in neutral Malaysia.
The final clash is a big one in the east as China, under Marcello Lippi, host South Korea. The Koreans are going for a ninth successive World Cup appearance but are without the suspended Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur. There will be a red-hot atmosphere in Changsa and with Russia 2018 getting closer, that is the way it should be.