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 By John Duerden

Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa must make peace with Japan coach Vahid

Japan's Vahid Halilhodzic has been experimenting with new players and combinations ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

It was striking in November's friendlies against Brazil and Belgium that coach Vahid Halilhodzic decided to drop Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda from the Japan squad.

But in a World Cup year, Japanese fans will be hoping that the superstar trio returns for the next international action in March, just three months before their opening Group H match in Russia.

Here are five Japan football wishes for 2018.

1. Make peace with the big three

Halilhodzic chose to go into November internationals...

 By John Duerden

Mat Ryan with something to prove with Australia at World Cup, Japan content

PJ Roberts and Jason Dasey analyse the World Cup draws for the record five Asian teams at Russia 2018.
PJ Roberts and Jason Dasey analyse the World Cup draws for the record five Asian teams at Russia 2018.
PJ Roberts and Jason Dasey analyse the World Cup draws for the record five Asian teams at Russia 2018.

Of all the Asian stars who will be heading from the Premier League to the World Cup next June, Australia and Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan is the one with the most unfinished business. The good news is a group containing France, Denmark and Peru looks a lot better than in 2014.

Back in Brazil, Ryan had not long replaced the venerable Mark Schwarzer as the Socceroos No.1 and had a tough time as Australia were faced with the toughest of groups with Spain, Netherlands and Chile.

The Aussie, 22 at the...

World Cup Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

The ESPN FC crew discuss the World Cup draw.
The ESPN FC crew discuss the World Cup draw.

Make no mistake: Group H is for hipster. This is an eclectic and very even group of teams with super middleweights in the form of Poland and Colombia and the not-to-be-underestimated in Senegal and Japan. It promises to be a load of fun.

Predicted finish

1. Poland -- There's more to Poland than Robert Lewandowski. This team has a very good spine in Wojciech Szczesny, Kamil Glik and Grzegorz Krychowiak and feels more complete than the rest.

2. Senegal -- Sadio Mane and Keita Balde...

Shinji Kagawa retains friendship with Juan Mata, united in charity

Shinji Kagawa finds himself carrying the burden of Japan's hopes as he enters his first World Cup finals.
Saudi Arabia moved ahead of Australia in Group B and qualified for the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 win over Japan.
Former Man United defender Paul Parker is left wondering if Jose Mourinho will play not to lose or attack Tottenham at home.

From Dortmund dynamo to Old Trafford outcast and back, Shinji Kagawa's seven-year European adventure has been an eventful rollercoaster ride for the creative, yet fragile, playmaker.

While his two-season stint with Manchester United provided few positives -- a hat trick against Norwich in his Premier League-winning season aside -- the enduring friendship struck up with Juan Mata has at least yielded something of note that could have a much greater long-term impact.

Kagawa's decision to sign up for...

Socceroos' World Cup playoff evokes memories of Uruguay miracle

Australia and Syria will go head-to-head in the first round of a series of playoffs on the road to next year's World Cup.

The opening leg on neutral soil in Malacca, Malaysia, on Thursday will be followed by the second leg in Sydney on Oct. 10.

SyriaSyria
AustraliaAustralia
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The winners will face the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF zone in another two-legged playoff for a place at Russia 2018.

Here are five memorable playoffs from around the region:

North Korea v Australia, Phnom Penh, 1965

It was the days before the World...

 By Paul Murphy

Thailand won't roll over for Socceroos after defensive improvements

Japan qualified for their sixth straight World Cup following their 2-0 win over Australia.
Australia's Jackson Irvine credits Japan's game plan and still feels Australia can qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

BANGKOK -- Australia would be well advised not to take a more defensive Thailand lightly as they attempt to seal automatic qualification from Group B in Tuesday's final matchday of the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.

The Socceroos' 2-0 defeat to Japan on Thursday has left them in a precarious position, with a crushing win over the Thais their best chance of booking their place in Russia next year.

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ThailandThailand
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They will need to overturn a two-goal deficit compared to Saudi Arabia to avoid being subjected...