Preview: Japan, Australia seek to prosper from Saudi woe
TOKYO (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's loss on Tuesday has greatly simplified the maths ahead of the crunch World Cup qualifier between Japan and Australia on Thursday -- a victory at Saitama Stadium will secure a ticket to Russia for the winners.
Japanese and Australian fans alike would have good reason to send messages of thanks to the United Arab Emirates after the 2-1 victory over the Saudis in Al Ain increased the likelihood of both their teams progressing.
The three-way battle for the top-two places in Group B that bring with them direct qualification for Russia will still go down to next week's final round of matches, when Japan go to Saudi Arabia and the Socceroos host winless Thailand.
However, Japan's one-point cushion over the other two meant a victory on Thursday would always have secured a sixth straight trip to the finals, but now they can now afford a draw against Australia and still progress by avoiding defeat in Jeddah.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has been under heavy pressure after a stuttering campaign and Australia's Yokohama-based defender Milos Degenek suggested this week that some in Japan would prefer a Socceroos win on Thursday to get rid of the Bosnian.
If true, that is not likely to be the prevailing sentiment inside the camp as the hosts plot a first World Cup qualifying victory over the Australians in eight attempts.
Five of those have been draws and their last meeting, a 1-1 stalemate in Melbourne last October, was typical of the tight encounters between the two in a rivalry that has intensified since Australia joined the Asian confederation in 2006.
"I don't know how Australia are going to come at us but I think we are going to be more offensive and aggressive than the last away game against them," Japan defender Maya Yoshida told Kyodo on Tuesday.
"I think we were a little bit too defensive last time but it's a home game and we are ready and we are going to be more aggressive."
While Halilhodzic has injury concerns over midfielders Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe as well as forward Keisuke Honda, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou has been robbed of his inspirational captain Mile Jedinak for the last two qualifiers.
Postecoglou told a news conference on Wednesday the Saudi defeat and the prospect of direct qualification with a match to spare would not change much for the ambitious Socceroos.
"It's not just about qualifying for us," he said. "We want to continue to evolve and become a really strong team to compete at a World Cup and do well.
"If you can beat Japan at their home, it's a good indicator that you're a strong team."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by John O'Brien)