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Japan focusing on World Cup qualifiers vs Saudis, Australia

October 5, 2021 GMT
Japan's Takefusa Kubo shoots by China's goalkeeper Junling Yan during a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match between China and Japan in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed)
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Japan's Takefusa Kubo shoots by China's goalkeeper Junling Yan during a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match between China and Japan in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed)
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Japan's Takefusa Kubo shoots by China's goalkeeper Junling Yan during a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match between China and Japan in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed)

An upset loss to Oman and a narrow win over China have sharpened Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu’s focus ahead of back-to-back World Cup qualifying games against Saudi Arabia and Australia.

The Japan squad travels to the Saudi capital knowing that a defeat on Thursday will be a significant setback in its bid for a seventh successive World Cup appearance.

Only the top two in each six-team group in the last round of Asian qualifying are guaranteed a place in Qatar next year. After two games, Japan is already three points behind Saudi Arabia and Australia in Group B.

“We don’t have much time, but the players need to switch from what they do with their clubs and get their heads around our team concept,” Moriyasu said. “We didn’t do that last time, and we have to make sure we sort that out.”

It is particularly important that Japan keeps in touch with the group leaders as the team is in action five days later at home against Australia, which has won 10 straight games in qualifying.

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After comfortable victories over China and Vietnam, the Socceroos are full of confidence.

“They’re starting to believe they can win every game, which is fantastic, and that’s what I expect,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said. “Also they believe in each other which is very, very good.”

Unable to play qualifiers at home because of travel restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australians are taking on Oman in Doha, Qatar before traveling to Japan. Arnold had to draft in Sunderland defender Bailey Wright for the pair of qualifiers when Milos Degenek was ruled out after testing positive for the coronavirus in pre-departure screening from his club, Red Star Belgrade.

China and Vietnam will meet in the United Arab Emirates in the other Group B match, with both teams chasing their first points in the round.

In Group A, South Korea, aiming for a 10 successive World Cup appearance, has four points but has played both games so far at home. A 0-0 draw against Iraq on Sept. 2 was followed by a tight 1-0 win over Lebanon. Three points against Syria on Thursday are important for the Koreans, as the game is followed five days later by a tough trip to Tehran to take on group leader Iran.

South Korea has talented English Premier League stars to call upon, including Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan, but those players weren’t due to report for training until about 48 hours before the Syria game.

Son complained of jet lag in last month’s qualifiers, and South Korea coach Paulo Bento has to factor travel and the condition of his Europe-based players into his planning for every international game.

“We’ll manage the players in the way that we think will be the best way for the team and for the players,” Bento said. “We should play every time with the best players, because we have goals to achieve. I’ll keep selecting and choosing the best ones for each game.”

Elsewhere in Group A on Thursday, Iran takes on the United Arab Emirates in Tehran and Lebanon and Iraq meet in Doha.

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