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Japan struggled in recent friendlies, falling to Ukraine and drawing with Mali.

Two months ahead of the World Cup should be a time for excitement and anticipation, but there are worries in Japan. On June 19, the Samurai Blue take on Colombia in the opening game of a Group H that also contains Senegal and Poland, and as coach Vahid Halilhodzic said in March, the Japanese are not ready.

When looking at results, the Bosnian seems right. Since qualification was secured in August with a win over Australia, Japan’s form has been questionable, with just three wins out of nine friendly games. Those victories have come against New Zealand, North Korea and China.

The November losses against Brazil and Belgium in Europe were expected, even if the performances were a little disappointing. The nadir might not have been a 4-1 loss to rivals South Korea at home in December, but a 3-3 draw with Haiti in Yokohama in October.

“I’ve been a manager for many years and I’ve never seen a match as bad as this,” Halilhodzic said after Shinji Kagawa’s 92nd minute equaliser saved the team from an even more embarrassing fate.

It all meant that the recent friendly tests with Mali and Ukraine, both played in Belgium, were an opportunity to get back on track. The former ended 1-1 and the latter in a 2-1 loss. No wonder Halilhodzic believes there is much still to do.

Japan’s head man since 2015, Halilhodzic has never looked completely comfortable in his quest to make Japan more of a counter-attacking team as opposed to the more traditional possession-based game. Fans and media still have their doubts. While qualification was sealed with a game to spare, there was talk during the campaign that his job was under threat.

Against Mali and Ukraine, Halilhodziic could at least point to significant absences in defence in the shape of Southampton centre-back Maya Yoshida and Marseille right-back Hiroki Sakai. Shinji Okazaki and Kagawa missed out due to injury, and then there was no Yosuke Ideguchi.

The midfielder scored the spectacular goal against Australia that sealed the Cup-qualifying win and looked to have locked down his status as a regular. Signed by Leeds United for £500,000 in January, Ideguchi was loaned out to Cultural Leonesa Spain’s second tier for work-permit reasons. The 21-year-old has barely played and was not called up by Halilhodzic. Ideguchi is in danger of missing out on the World Cup altogether.

Vahid Halilhodzic has received criticism, as the Japan side have not adjusted to his desired counter-attacking style.

He might not have made much of a difference against Mali and Ukraine. Old issues remain. Japan can still move the ball around nicely but look short of ideas in the final third against strong defences. There were significant gaps behind and in front of the backline against Ukraine and there was very little of the compactness that the coach has been pushing for. And when the midfield, Japan’s strongest area, struggles in possession there really are problems.

The big three attackers — Okazaki, Kagawa and Keisuke Honda — have all been dropped at various times over the past year. All three will make the plane to Russia, but none can be certain of starting. At the moment, few players can. With constant changing and experimenting, it is starting to look as if Halilhodziic does not know his strongest team. Time is running out.

The one comfort, apart from a group that looks to be wide-open, is history. Four years ago, Japan arrived in Brazil on the back of five straight wins –including one against Belgium in Brussels — and hopes were high of a first-ever appearance in the last eight. In the end, the team collected just one point in a dismal campaign.

In 2010, Japan arrived in South Africa in much worse shape than the current team, losing five of their six warm-up games. The media wanted coach Takeshi Okada out and 2002 coach Philippe Troussier blasted the team’s stupid mentality. Okada’s pre-tournament target of the semifinals was ridiculed, but he ended up steering the team to within a penalty shootout of a quarterfinal spot.

Okada changed the team’s system days before the opening game against Cameroon, fielding Honda as a sole striker. Some of the team’s attractiveness and fluidity were sacrificed, but it resulted in the first-ever knockout appearance on foreign soil. Weeks later, the already-resigned Okada attended a promotional event for the country’s 2022 World Cup bid in Tokyo and was all smiles, as were the journalists that had been so vehement in their criticism weeks before.

Everyone is hoping that Halilhodzic will feel similar vindication once it is all over but, as he has said, there is much work to do.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.





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