Singapore v Japan: The key battles
On paper, it appears a huge mismatch. While few give them a chance of another draw with Asian giants Japan, DAVID LEE looks at the key battles as the Lions try to defy the odds tonight at the National Stadium
KEEPING IT TIGHT
MADHU MOHANA, 24, LionsXII, 9 caps, 0 goals V SHINJI OKAZAKI, 29, Leicester City, 96 caps, 47 goals
A framed Japan jersey worn by Shinji Okazaki hangs on the wall of Madhu Mohana's living room.
It is a reminder of that incredible 0-0 draw in June, when the Singapore defender played his part in neutralising Japan's third-highest scorer of all time.
Madhu admits he doesn't follow European football and did not know Okamoto from Okazaki then.
The lanky Singapore centre back is every coach's dream as he does his job with minimum fuss and maximum sensibility.
Madhu knows his first priority is to prevent the ball from going anywhere near his goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud - there is no need for cheeky dribbles or fancy flicks.
Given the gulf in quality between world No. 152 Singapore and world No. 50 Japan, Madhu expects to be overworked, and may not even venture forward for his trademark long throws.
He said: "I face big, skilful strikers in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) regularly with the LionsXII, but that was something like a personal duel. Taking on Japan is going to be another level because all their players are top footballers.
"There will be mistakes made, but that's where communication and teamwork come into play as we cover and help each other to double-team the main striker."
Okazaki himself is learning from better players in the English Premier League, especially teammate and current EPL top-scorer Jamie Vardy.
Not blessed with the best first-touch, Okazaki makes up for it with his work rate. The 1.75m tall forward has a good leap, speed of thought and is willing to try from any range or angle.
While he has just one EPL goal to his name, Okazaki has already scored seven times for his country this year.
He said: "I hope to score more goals but my style is to keep going and going and, maybe if there is a good cross, I can get into the box and score.
"I would like to score more goals."
COMMANDING THE MIDFIELD
HARISS HARUN (right, above), 24, Johor Darul Ta'zim I, 57 caps, 4 goals V SHINJI KAGAWA (right, below), 26, Borussia Dortmund, 75 caps, 23 goals
The last time these two met, it was the more illustrious Bundesliga and EPL winner who suffered, eventually subbed off after an ineffectual hour.
But Shinji Kagawa has grown from strength to strength as the season progressed and has scored three goals for his country in the subsequent three qualifiers, two of which were from long range.
The Dortmund playmaker seems to have figured out where it had gone wrong in his previous encounter against the Lions and suggested that a dose of Gegenpressing, which he is well accustomed to having worked under former Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp, could work.
"We have to press much harder to prevent them from having time on the ball," said Kagawa. "We also have to show better communication than we did in the June draw."
Hariss Harun, who has been picking up silverware in the form of three MSL titles and the AFC Cup, knows that all Kagawa needs is a split second to punish a tactically ill-disciplined side with a creative pass or opportunistic strike.
He will need all the help he can get from Safuwan Baharudin and Izzdin Shafiq.
"Shutting down Kagawa the last time round was a team job and not just down to me alone," said Hariss, who will likely don the captain's armband tonight.
"I'm sure he and his team will want to set the record straight. Kagawa will be dangerous when he plays between our defence and midfield, so we need good communication and another good team performance to neutralise him.
"We don't have a Messi, a Ronaldo, or even a Kagawa. Japan are technically the best team we have faced. They are expected to beat us so the pressure should be on them.
"We should play without fear and pressure. Our main strength is our teamwork and, if we get that right, we have a chance to surprise again."
SEIZING THE CHANCE
FAZRUL NAWAZ, 30, Warriors FC, 77 caps, 9 goals V MAYA YOSHIDA, 27, Southamption, 60 caps, 5 goals
With 22 goals for club and country this year, Fazrul Nawaz is in the scoring form of his life.
He is the highest-scoring Singaporean footballer this year and should start up front as a hamstrung Khairul Amri sits out.
But this will be a test like no other.
Chances will be at a premium for the Lions, as even their attackers will be expected to defend.
The hardworking harrier seems to be just the right man for the job,
Said Fazrul: "I will keep running and defending from the front, try not to let Japan settle down and play from the back."
His direct opponent, centre back Maya Yoshida, also has had to put in his share of work to establish himself as a Southampton regular, putting on five kilogrammes of muscle since arriving at St Mary's.
He used to be able to bench press 65kg, now he can go up to 80kg.
"I am the tallest and biggest (1.89m) in the Japan national team but, in the Premier League, I am normal," said Yoshida.
"Compare the difference between a Japanese striker and Graziano Pelle (1.93m) - he's a monster. That is the reason I work harder."
He is not averse to venturing forward, as proven by a goal in the 3-0 win over Cambodia.
Yoshida said: "We need to focus for the entire match and stop Singapore's first movement of counter-attack. But in attack, we have to provide more options."
Christopher Van Huizen.
CHRISTOPHER VAN HUIZEN, 22, LionsXII, uncapped V TAKASHI USAMI, 23, Gamba Osaka, 11 caps, 2 goals
Picture this: Singapore down by just one goal with minutes left on the clock.
Singapore coach Bernd Stange, trying to salvage a point, looks to his bench and turns to Christopher van Huizen.
This may be his first season as a professional footballer, but in 17 games for the LionsXII - four starts, 13 substitute appearances - van Huizen already has two goals and six assists, including the winner at Terengganu last week.
And he has already visualised what he will do on the field if he gets his international debut tonight.
Van Huizen said: "It will be super unexpected but, if I'm called upon at a time when we are chasing a goal, I will do my best to provide as many crosses and initiate as many attacking moves as possible down the flanks.
"Early crosses, run at the fullback, cut in and shoot, I will try everything and, of course, I will have to be mindful of my defensive duties and holding the team shape."
While the former reality TV contestant is still getting to grips with professional football, Japan forward Takashi Usami has already experienced what it is like to be in a Champions League final, when he was an unused sub while on loan with Bayern Munich in 2012.
Upon returning to Japan, the speedy Usami helped Gamba Osaka seal a return to the first division by scoring 19 goals in 18 league games in 2013, before netting 21 times last season to help his side romp to an unexpected domestic treble.
His return of 19 league goals this year also makes him the highest J.League scorer in the current national squad.
Reflecting on his time in Germany - he also featured for Hoffenheim - Usami said: "I made improvements in every aspect there.
"I learned a great deal of things with the two clubs. I realised that I needed to change not only technically but also mentally in order to become a better player.
"It has brought about changes to me as a player as well as a person. I also learned to be confident. I believe I am capable of passing, dribbling and scoring. Now these have become my major strengths."
- SINGAPORE: Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Baihakki Khaizan, Shakir Hamzah, Faris Ramli, Izzdin Shafiq, Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Fazrul Nawaz
- JAPAN: Shusaku Nishikawa, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshisa, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo, Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguhi, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Genki Haraguchi, Shinji Okazaki
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