Stars collide in Saitama for crucial qualifier

Caltex Socceroos midfielder Massimo Luongo and Japanese superstar Shinji Kagawa.
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Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden sets the scene ahead of Australia's final two critical World Cup qualifiers in Group B, beginning with a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

August is a big month for football in Australia. On the very last day, the Caltex Socceroos will make a trip to Saitama Stadium to take on Japan.

Victory just north of Tokyo will see the men in Green and Gold take a major step towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup. 

At the moment with two games in the third round of qualification remaining, the AFC Champion sits in second in Group B, level on 16 points with Saudi Arabia and one behind Japan.

With only the top two progressing automatically to Russia, a loss in the Land of the Morning Sun will leave Australia having to defeat Thailand in Melbourne five days later and hope that other results go its way.

Tom Rogic on the ball against Japan in October's World Cup Qualifier in Melbourne.

Nobody wants to be in that position. Much more preferable is getting a result in Japan which will mean that Ange Postecoglou and his men will control their own destiny.

LAST TIME IN SAITAMA

It will not be easy though at least Australia is familiar with this arena. Just over four years ago, Holger Osieck led the team to the same venue.

Japan needed a draw to qualify for Brazil 2014. It almost happened with a last-minute equaliser, a penalty from Keisuke Honda cancelling out Tommy Oar's opener, earning the Samurai Blue the point it needed. 

Keisuke Honda connects with the ball during Japan's win over Honduras.

VIDEO: Oar relives pulsating Blue Samurai clash

Australia subsequently did the job at home against Jordan and Iraq.

Why these are two massive games for Australia

So there is a certain familiarity and the two teams still know each other reasonably well. The old guard of Honda, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida and Eiji Kawashima all played against Iraq in June, with Shinji Kagawa injured.

Japan players celebrate a goal in their win over UAE.

That 1-1 draw prevented the team from moving three points clear at the top of the group. Japan is still in a strong position after bouncing back well from the opening game defeat at home to United Arab Emirates. 

Since that loss, the team has won five and drawn two of the subsequent seven games, one of which was a 1-1 stalemate in Melbourne last October.

PRESSURE ON HOSTS

There is pressure on Japan too. The team's issue is that the remaining two games are against second and third. 

Failure to defeat Australia could well mean that the four-time continental champs travel to Saudi Arabia needing to win with the possibility of the host needing just a point in front of 60,000 fans.

Japan thumped Thailand 4-0 in World Cup Qualifying on Tuesday night.

With plenty of European-based players, Japan’s stars should be at least fresh. Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki have started English Premier League seasons with Southampton and Leicester City respectively.

Likewise Mat Ryan and Aaron Mooy with Brighton and Huddersfield respectively. Mooy in particular has begun the season with a bang. 

Aussies catch the eye in English Premier League

There is a strong Bundesliga contingent for the Japanese, too. Herthe Berlin’s Genki Haraguchi (a teammate of Australia's Mat Leckie) has emerged as one of the team’s stars and scored his team’s goal in Melbourne. 

Yuya Osako of FC Koln netted against Iraq and there is Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund.

Australia's Bundesliga contingent includes keeper Mitch Langerak (Stuttgart) as well as Hertha Berlin flyer Leckie while  Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum) and Jamie Maclaren at Darmstadt 98 ply their trade in 2. Bundesliga. 

Jamie Maclaren admits he's hoping for game time in Australia's friendly against Brazil.

EMPEROR'S NEW MEXICAN CLUB

Kagawa and Honda are not quite as central to the Japan team as they were four years ago but the latter’s situation is especially intriguing.

After three and a half underwhelming seasons at AC Milan, 'The Émperor' has left the San Siro in order to get some playing time after being warned by coach Vahid Halilhodzic that his national team spot was in danger. 

The player's departure was expected, the destination was not.

Keisuke Honda

Honda joined Pachuca of Mexico and if he can start playing for the storied side, then he may just arrive for national team duty in his best condition for some time.

That would be enough to concern any opposition coach but whatever happens and whoever returns, the game in Saitama has all the trapping of one of the biggest in Australian history.  

Caltex Socceroos v Thailand banner

This article was originally published at: http://www.socceroos.com.au/article/socceroos-japan-collide-in-saitama-for-crucial-world-cup-qualifier/43npobm2pn9r1y1ooen6d8ndj.