UPDATE1: Soccer: Halilhodzic sticks with Honda for World Cup qualifiers


Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has decided to keep faith in Keisuke Honda, naming the out-of-favor AC Milan attacker to his 25-man squad on Thursday for this month's World Cup final-round qualifiers against United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

Halilhodzic also threw in a few surprises as Gamba Osaka's Yasuyuki Konno and club teammate Shu Kurata were recalled along with FC Tokyo's Yojiro Takahagi for the games in Al Ain on March 23 and Saitama on the 28th. Takahagi was picked for the first time by Halilhodzic.

Two-time World Cup midfielder Honda has appeared in just five Serie A matches for Milan this season, starting just once in a 3-0 defeat to Genoa on Oct. 25.

He has seen no league action since Dec. 12 and was left out of the squad for last Friday's 2-1 defeat away to Juventus.

But Halilhodzic, who has repeatedly said that he would not select players that are getting no playing time at their clubs, admitted that the 30-year-old Honda was indispensable.

"Even if Honda isn't playing for his club, the national team needs him," Halilhodzic told a press conference at the Japan Football Association's headquarters.

"He is our top striker. Obviously, I would like him to be playing more at Milan but he is not being used because competition for places is so fierce."

"But he is always very hungry to play for Japan and his presence is required. Whether he plays and how many minutes he plays for is a different question."

"He didn't start in our last game (against Saudi Arabia) but put in a good performance when he came on. Honda and (Inter Milan defender Yuto) Nagatomo play for big clubs in Europe and even if they are only training I know I can put my trust in them."

Halilhodzic continued, "I'm not the only coach that has kept picking them. If better players than those two emerge then I might not pick them anymore, which means other players have to raise their games and be even better."

"They have been with the national team for around 10 years and it is not just their playing ability, their presence is very important for the group."

Konno, who has 87 caps, returns to the national team for the first time since March 2015.

"Konno is on the list because he looks in good condition and has a wealth of experience. That is what we need in the next match so for me it is not really a surprise that I have picked him," said Halilhodzic.

Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi misses out after suffering a fractured cheekbone in last weekend's 3-0 win over FC Tokyo but regular captain Makoto Hasebe, who sustained a shin injury in Eintracht Frankfurt's 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich, was selected.

"I am sad that I could not call up Higashiguchi because he was in really good form. He got injured but would have been pushing for a start in our next game," said Halilhodzic.

"Hasebe, as you know he collided with a post and got an injury, but he is back in training and is a very strong captain for us. Having a team without him in it is unthinkable."

Japan suffered a controversial 2-1 defeat to UAE in their opening match in the final round of qualifiers in September last year when Takuma Asano had a legitimate goal ruled out that would have leveled the match at 2-2.

"Nobody has forgotten that first match against UAE and this is a chance for us to get revenge," said Halilhodzic.

"We have to go for a win and try and secure qualification. Nobody is going to hand it to us on a plate. We might be roughed up and provoked and it will be physical but I hope the match will be officiated fairly."

Halihozic's men are level on 10 points from five games with Saudi Arabia who top the group on goal difference. Third-place Australia and fourth-place UAE both have nine points, with Iraq on three and bottom club Thailand on one.



The squad:

Goalkeepers - Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Akihiro Hayashi (FC Tokyo)

Defenders - Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)


Midfielders - Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Yojiro Takahagi (FC Tokyo), Shu Kurata (Gamba Osaka), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Cerezo Osaka), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)


Forwards - Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Yuya Osako (Cologne), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Yuya Kubo (Gent), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart)


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