A high level of anxiety is brewing in Tokyo just as a huge amount of excitement is building up in Phnom Penh as the Cambodian national team, spending the next few days in its final stretch of preparation in Thailand, take on five-time Asian champions Japan at the Saitama Stadium on next Thursday in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers for a ticket to Russia 2018.
Japan stand more than 100 places above the Kingdom in FIFA rankings, so on paper at least the Group E clash is a classic minnows versus the mighty tale and any result other than a home win would cause tremors all over the world.
A long shot Cambodia may well be, but head coach Lee Tae Hoon has one crucial factor working in his favour to throw a shock and that is the turbulent times Japanese football is going through and the self-doubt that has crept into the team.
Rumours were swirling that Vahid Halihodzic might lose his job after Japan returned from the East Asian Cup in the Chinese city of Wuhan after losing to North Korea and drawing with China and South Korea to remain winless in the competition for the first time ever.
The Japan Football Federation, however, stood by the Bosnian, with JPA president Kuniya Daini admitting earlier this month that Japan faced a crisis and something had to change.
This JPA acknowledgement came in response to Halihodzic blowing his top after his side lost to North Korea and taking up the issue of strengthening the team directly with the head of the federation.
Though it was only a second string side that went to Wuhan, a full strength Japan, bolstered by 13-Europe based players was frustrated no end by visiting Singapore in 2018 World Cup qualifying in June, with a goalless draw that shocked the football world.
These two recent results, along with Japan’s exit from the Asian Cup as defending champions in a penalty shootout against the United Arab Emirates earlier in the year, have added a layer of anxiety for the Japanese.
“I want my players to make the best of this great opportunity to play a world class team like Japan.
We have done well to come this far in reaching the second round. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Cambodia’s coach Lee Tae Hoon said.
For Lee Tae Hoon’s counterpart though, nothing less than win would be a total disaster as Japan travel to Tehran to meet Afghanistan on September 8, the day Cambodia will play host to Syria at the Olympic Stadium.
Normally, perhaps Japan would have taken Cambodia lightly but certainly not next week, as Halihodzic will have repeatedly warned his players.