Okazaki keen to avoid repeat of Saitama nightmare

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Japan striker Shinji Okazaki is eyeing an early goal at the Singapore Sports Hub on Thursday night as they look to avoid another shock result against Singapore.

Singapore escaped from Saitama Stadium 2002 with a miraculous 0-0 draw in June, a result which stunned the whole of Asian football.

The Samurai Blue were widely expected to teach their Southeast Asian opponents a footballing lesson, but ended up firing blanks with Okazaki superbly shut out by the Singaporean defensive pairing of Baihakki Khaizan and Madhu Mohana.

That was not the way in which the Japanese would have wanted to start off this World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

But Japan have since bounced back by beating Cambodia 3-0, Afghanistan 6-0 and Syria 3-0. That places them in second spot in Group E as they prepare to face off against Singapore once again, this time in the Lion City.

Memories of that fateful game were still fresh in Okazaki’s mind as he emphasised the importance of scoring early to break the Lions’ strong resistance – Bernd Stange’s men have only let in two goals in five matches so far.

“I’m not going to predict how many goals we’re going for, but of course we want as many as possible,” he told assembled media after Japan’s final pre-match training session at the Singapore Sports Hub on Wednesday night.

“We’re hoping to score early in the first half so that we can settle the match early. This is a very important match for Japan and we must get the three points.

“As for myself individually, scoring goals is my job and that’s exactly what I’m going to do tomorrow night.

Things have been going well for Okazaki in the last few months, having secured a dream move to the English Premier League outfit Leicester City and flourishing with the national team by scoring three goals in the last three qualifying matches.

The 29-year-old revealed that his good form was motivated by the fierce competition for the striking role in the Japanese national team, with the likes of Keisuke Honda, Takashi Usami and Yoshinori Muto all presenting strong cases for selection.

“We have a total of eight strikers in the national team – that’s a lot,” he said.

“But it’s also a good challenge for me personally and I welcome the competition between the teammates. That makes me a better player and also makes us improve as a team on a whole.”

This will be Okazaki’s second match at the Singapore Sports Hub, having been involved in the high-profile friendly between Japan and Brazil last October. The Samurai Blue lost 4-0 that night, with Brazil captain Neymar scoring all four goals.

Okazaki is looking forward to playing on the new surface, which is a completely different one from last year’s.

“This pitch is much better than the one that we played here against Brazil,” he said.

“It’s a good pitch now and there’s no problems playing on it at all. That’s good for us and we will play to win on Thursday night.”