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Japan coach Halilhodzic ready to give young players a chance

(AP Photo/Michel Spingler, File)

By JIM ARMSTRONG

AP Sports Writer

While established players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda should play a big role for Japan at the World Cup, coach Vahid Halilhodzic has indicated that many spots remain open and it's time for the next generation to step up.

Halilhodzic named a 26-man roster for friendlies against Mali on March 23 and Ukraine on March 27 and there were a few surprises.

In Russia, Japan has been drawn in a group with Poland, Colombia and Senegal. Despite six straight World Cup appearances, Japan has never advanced beyond the second round.

Halilhodzic guided Algeria to the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup, where they lost to Germany in extra time. The Japanese soccer association is hoping Halilhodzic can create a similar breakthrough for Japan.

Here are some issues for the national team ahead of the World Cup:

Shoya Nakajima, who plays in Portugal for Portimonense, was named for the first time and is the type of young talent that Halilhodzic favors. He has scored nine goals and added six assists in the Portuguese league this season.

"He's explosive," Halilhodzic said. "He has been displaying strengths in one-on-one situations at his club, and I want to take a close look to see if he can do the same at the national team level."

In another indication that Halilhodzic is moving in a different direction, forwards Yu Kobayashi, Kenyu Sugimoto and Yuya Osako were called up while there was no place for Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki.

Halilhodzic said all three score more goals and that Okazaki plays "a different role with Leicester to how we play in the national team."

Keisuke Honda has been a key member of the national team since 2010 but hasn't played for Japan since a World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia in September.

With four goals in 11 games for Mexican club Pachuca this season, it's easy to see why Halilhodzic has brought him back.

"I want him to play well, score goals, and create goals," Halilhodzic said. "He's a forward, but his role in defense is also important. I want him to display his ability to the fullest."

Clouding Honda's return is the fact that his name is on a document that was circulated by a Russian sports website in December. CSKA Moscow, where Honda played before the 2014 World Cup, has had more doping cases than any club in the last decade and is an obvious target for doping cases.

FIFA seems to be stalling on prosecuting the cases but it could be that Honda is a bigger name than any Russian involved.

As eager as Halilhodzic is to give younger players a chance to prove themselves, he's made no secret that a lack of playing time will be costly.

Stuttgart striker Takuma Asano and Cultural Leonesa midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi both scored in Japan's 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Australia last August to secure the team's place at the tournament. But both were left off the roster for the upcoming friendlies.

Asano has yet to appear in the Bundesliga this year and Ideguchi's last game for his Spanish club was on Feb. 18.

Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai are all dealing with injuries.

Yoshida, a defender who plays for Southampton, injured his knee in training and is unavailable for the upcoming friendlies. Kagawa is dealing with a nagging foot injury picked during the second half of Dortmund's 2-0 Bundesliga win over Hamburg in February. And Sakai will be absent because of a right hip injury.

The 27-year-old Marseille defender sustained the injury in a recent match against Lyon, and the French club said he will be sidelined for seven-to-10 days.

Updated March 21, 2018

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