Japan v Syria: Top spot up for grabs

Vahid Halilhodzic revealed Japan are treating their blockbuster AFC World Cup qualifying showdown against Syria like a "final" as the Asian giants look to clinch top spot

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Vahid Halilhodzic revealed Japan are treating their blockbuster AFC World Cup qualifying showdown against Syria like a "final" as the Asian giants look to clinch top spot.

It is first against second in Saitama on Tuesday as Japan and Syria vie to advance to the third and final stage of qualifying as Group E winners.

Only a point separates unbeaten Japan and Syria in second spot through seven fixtures heading into the deciding match after both teams recorded comprehensive wins last time out.

Japan crushed Afghanistan 5-0 on Thursday as they kept a seventh successive clean sheet, while Syria dismantled winless Cambodia 6-0.

And Bosnian coach Halilhodzic knows Japan, who won the reverse meeting 3-0 in October and are nine matches unbeaten, will face a completely different task against the high-flying Syrians.

"That was a truly beautiful win," Halilhodzic said after Thursday's match which extended Japan's run of collecting maximum points since their goalless draw against Singapore to open the campaign.

"At the beginning we were passing the ball a bit too quickly, and some of the players were trying to do too much. But overall our team played phenomenally well, with a new system which I had never tried before with them.

"Now we must prepare for the next game against an even tougher opponent. We must treat this as a final and go all out for the win. But not only the win — I want to win and finish this group without conceding any goals."

For Syria, Omar Khribin scored twice in the first half as they won a fourth straight match by consigning Cambodia to an eighth consecutive defeat, but Japan's five-star performance was the pick of the bunch.

Halilhodzic tested a new system, pairing Mu Kanazaki and Shinji Okazaki up front as twin strikers in front of a midfield diamond and it worked well, despite limited preparation.

"I felt our players had the necessary edge in terms of quality," Halilhodzic said. "Of course you have to respect Afghanistan, but this was a chance to try something new. 

"Maybe it's not the right thing to do in a World Cup qualifier but we also had some players arriving late and there were several factors in this decision.

"I could see the aggression and the spirit and I thought the goals would come. Maybe the players were beginning to doubt themselves, but in the second half Afghanistan tired and we got the goals. The match has really confirmed my determination to make this team succeed."

As well as group winners, the four best second-placed teams also progress to the next stage – with both sides likely to be in that quartet even if they miss out on top position.

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