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Back pain forces Kagawa out of Japan qualifier

TOKYO, Japan, September 11 – Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa will miss Japan’s World Cup qualifier against Iraq after withdrawing from the squad because of back pain.

The 23-year-old felt discomfort in his lower back during training on the eve of the match at Saitama, north of Tokyo, and failed to fully recover in time, the Japan Football Association said.

The extent of his injury was not immediately clear. United have a Premiership clash at home against Wigan Athletic on Saturday and a Champions League opener against Turkey’s Galatasaray at Old Trafford next week.

The association said Hannover defender Hiroki Sakai had been also sidelined due to pain in his left ankle injured in Japan’s opening 1-0 win over Spain at the London Olympics.

Meanwhile, Former Japan coach Zico will bid to lead Iraq to their first win over the Blue Samurai in 30 years on Tuesday, in a World Cup qualifying fixture with haunting memories for Japanese fans.

The Brazilian legend coached Japan at the 2006 World Cup and led them to victory at the 2004 Asian Cup, giving him valuable insights into Japanese football which will stand him in good stead at Saitama Stadium.

But Zico is well aware of the challenge facing Iraq, who have not reached a World Cup since 1986. Table-toppers Japan are brimming with talent including CSKA Moscow playmaker Keisuke Honda.

“Japan are one of the superpowers in Asia and have bags of quality,” Zico acknowleged, after arriving in Japan on Sunday. “There are a lot of players in the team that can score goals so we have to watch out for all of them.”

But despite their quality, Japan are not invincible, Zico said on Monday.

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“If people will recall, Uzbekistan beat Japan in Japan,” he said. “There’s no reason to think we cannot do the same.”

“There are no secrets in the modern game. You can’t keep anything up your sleeves any more. The important thing is to play as hard as we can and get the most out of our potential.”

Zico will take heart from Japan’s lacklustre 1-0 friendly win over United Arab Emirates last week, when Mike Havenaar scored the only goal.

History may also be on Iraq’s side after their only previous World Cup qualifying clash against Japan in October 1993, which Japanese supporters ruefully refer to as the ‘Agony of Doha’.

On that occasion, a stoppage-time equaliser by Jaffar Salman in the Qatari capital resulted in a 2-2 draw that sent South Korea and Saudi Arabia through to the 1994 finals at the expense of the Japanese.

The two teams have not played each other since a Tokyo friendly in 2004, which Japan won 2-0. Iraq’s last victory over Japan was a 1-0 win in the 1982 Asian Games quarter-finals.

With Honda in inspired form after his return from injury, Alberto Zaccheroni’s side made a strong start to the final qualifying round with emphatic home wins against Oman and Jordan.

After a pulsating 1-1 draw in Australia in June, Japan are in a strong position to reach a fifth consecutive World Cup as one of the top two teams. They currently have a five-point lead at the top of Group B.

Australia meanwhile will hope last week’s 3-0 friendly victory against Lebanon is a sign of things to come as they go in search of their first win, away to Jordan.

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Australia are looking to reach a third consecutive World Cup but the Socceroos have only two points so far after draws against Oman and Japan.

However, Holger Osieck’s side travelled to Jordan in confident mood after goals by Tim Cahill, Matt McKay and Archie Thompson saw them run out easy winners in their Beirut warm-up.

Jordan are also winless so far, and are looking to bounce back from a 6-0 hammering by Japan in their last outing in the qualifiers. They held Iran 0-0 in a friendly last week.

In Group A, leaders South Korea will try to stay on maximum points when they visit Tashkent to face Uzbekistan.

The Taeguk Warriors are eyeing an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance and they are off to an encouraging start after winning 4-1 in Qatar and 3-0 against Lebanon in June. South Korea also won Olympic bronze in August.

Uzbekistan have never qualified for the World Cup and they badly need a win after starting with two defeats. Recently appointed coach Mirdjalal Kasimov will take some encouragement from last week’s 3-0 friendly win over Kuwait.

The other Group A match will see Lebanon host three-time World Cup participants Iran in Beirut. The Lebanese were the surprise package of the previous round when they eliminated Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

But they have only one point from three games in the final round, and have never managed an international win against the second-placed Iranians.

The top two in each five-team group earn automatic berths at Brazil, while the two third-placed teams will face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.

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