Honda returns to Japan squad for March friendlies

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2017 file photo, Japan's coach Vahid Halilhodzic smiles during a press conference, in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, northern France. Keisuke Honda was among 26 players named on Thursday, March 15, 2018, by Japan coach Halilhodzic for two friendlies against Mali and Ukraine at the end of March. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, File)

TOKYO — Keisuke Honda was among 26 players named by Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic on Thursday for two friendlies against Mali and Ukraine at the end of March.

Honda, who hasn't played for Japan since September's World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia, has four goals in 11 games for Mexican side Pachuca this season.

Japan takes on Mali on March 23 and Ukraine on March 27. Both games will be held at Stade Maurice Dufrasne in Liege, Belgium.

Japan will face Colombia, Senegal and Poland in the group stage of the World Cup. Halilhodzic hopes to simulate those matches in Group H by taking on teams with similar playing styles in the upcoming friendlies in Belgium.

Southampton defender Maya Yoshida and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa have both been left out of the squad due to injury.

Leicester forward Shinji Okazaki, who returned to action for the Premier League side last weekend following a knee injury, has also been omitted.

A preliminary World Cup squad of 35 will be named by May 14, with the final 23 to be announced by June 4.

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