Japan

Japan’s historic path to Russia 2018

Japan became the third country to book a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, joining host Russia, Brazil and Iran. A convincing 2-0 victory over Australia in their penultimate Group B clash on Thursday confirmed their tickets for the big dance in the European nation.

Takuma Asano beat the offside trap to volley home from Yuto Nagatomo’s cross on 41 minutes to give the hosts a 1-0 lead at half-time. Before Yosuke Ideguchi made it two with a curling strike in the closing stages of the game to ignite wild celebrations amongst 60,000 fans at Saitama Stadium. While Japan may be heading to the global finals, it is an entirely different case for the Socceroos, sitting third in the group on goal difference.

The Journey to Russia

Having been excused from the preliminary round, for the second, Japan were drawn in Group E alongside Syria, Singapore, Afghanistan and Cambodia. The four-time Asian champions were tipped to ease past this group. Which they did in grand style. Of the eight games played, Vahid Halilhodzic’s team won seven, drawing one and lost none. Even more impressive was the fact that they notched 27 goals without conceding any.

Then came the business end of things; where all eight group winners, alongside four best runner-ups, will be drawn into two groups of six. The top two sides qualify automatically, while third-placed teams will proceed to the fourth round. Japan found themselves in tough company, next to Australia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.

First up for the Samurai Blue was a home tie against Iraq. Though unconvincing, Halilhodzic’s team still managed to win 2-1. A tricky trip to Australia was next. Worst case scenario, a point would be enough for the visitors. And they achieved just that. Then came a run of three successive victories. First against Saudi, followed by impressive wins over UAE and Thailand.

Their next game, however, didn’t exactly go as planned. Japan was held to a stalemate by Iraq. Then, the pressure began to pile up; Halilhodzic was even touted to be on his way out. His team needed to avoid defeat at home against the Aussies who had 16 points, just one behind them. So the meeting between both sides had all the making of a classic encounter. Well, at the end, it turned out to be a festival in the land of the rising sun as they head to their sixth successive Mundial.

What to expect in Russia

Japan is an evolving team comprising of both youth and experience. The rise to stardom of the likes of Makoto Hesebe, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda has more recently been overshadowed by “lesser-known” (certainly outside of Japan-football followers) emerging talent like Yuya Kubo, Genki Haraguchi (a Halilhodzic favourite) and in defensive midfield Yosuke Ideguchi, who is ready to step up.

But they must put their acts together to avoid another uneventful outing at the global showpiece. The Samurai Blue flopped at the last edition, exiting in the group stage despite qualifying first. It’s almost a fresh team and the expectation is that the East Asians will better their best ever round of 16 finish in Russia.

About the Author Toby

An unrepentant soccer freak other freaks call geek.

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