Samurai Blue primed to make amends for 2014

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan assesses Japan’s prospects of reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 following their opening win over Colombia.

After heading into the 2018 FIFA World Cup on the back of an abrupt managerial change, some woeful performances and with plenty of doubters writing them off, Japan’s fate now very much lies in their own hands.

They were definitely given a helping hand in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Colombia, after opposition midfielder Carlos Sanchez was sent off after just three minutes.

And, at times, it did look as though the Samurai Blue would squander the golden opportunity to claim maximum points, especially in the first half when they allowed the Colombians back into the contest.

But, come the second 45, Japan played the way you would expect a team with a numerical advantage, dominating proceedings and eventually grabbing a deserved winner when Yuya Osako headed home from a corner in the 73rd minute.

Next up for Akira Nishino’s charges in Group H is a game against Senegal, who were impressive in their 2-1 triumph over Poland and were the only African nation that tasted victory at in Match Day 1 at Russia 2018.

There is something refreshing about the way Senegal go about their business with coach Aliou Cisse opting for a traditional 4-4-2 formation, which allows his players to make full use of their speed, endeavour and tireless running.

Victory for either side at the Ekaterinburg Arena would almost certainly guarantee them a place in the knockout round.

So, following a run of five games without victory, which only ended on the eve of the World Cup with a 4-2 win over Paraguay, how did Japan find themselves in the promising position they are in now?

Plenty of credit has to go the players for rising to the occasion against Los Cafeteros on Tuesday.

Granted, they did play with an extra man for over 87 minutes but, after all the doubts about how old this Japan side is, several seasoned campaigners turned back the years to show that they can still perform at the highest level.

Yuto Nagatomo put in an all-action display at left-back while, following a brief experiment in defence, captain Makoto Hasebe was restored to the heart of midfield and provided his usual tenacity and composure.

Then, while he faded away in the second half and was ultimately replaced in the 70th minute, Shinji Kagawa was the Japanese’ most-creative outlet for much of the game and carved apart the Colombia defence at will with his incisive passes.

Kagawa ran the show for Japan early on against Colombia.

There are some who believe Kagawa and Keisuke Honda can no longer function together, although Nishino may not be tempted to see if that is true yet if he is to retain faith with the same starting XI.

Nonetheless, a different test now lies ahead of Nishino, who is currently enjoying his first taste of top-level international management, having previously cut his teeth at youth level, before spending much of his career coaching in the domestic J.League.

Japan’s pressing game may have reaped reward against the ten men of Colombia, but Senegal could certainly find a way around that with their pace and movement.

The fact that Nishino has the likes of Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami to call upon adds to the intrigue surrounding whom he picks to start on Sunday.

Nonetheless, it also means that the Japanese have plenty of firepower to call upon from the bench, even if Plan A does not prove effective against Senegal.

For so long, even with the emergence of Iran and Australia in recent years, Japan have been regarded as Asia’s number one team, largely owing to the plethora of stars they have plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.

Their performance at the 2014 World Cup, however, failed to reflect that, as they bowed out of the group stage with just a solitary point from three matches.

Can Japan make amends for their disappointing displays at Brazil 2014?

Already, four years on, the Samurai Blue have bettered that achievement but that should not be regarded as a satisfactory result.

Especially in such an even group, reaching the Round of 16 should be the bare minimum for a team boasting such talent.

Even if they fail to get a positive result against the exciting Senegalese, they could still get the job done in their final Group H game against a Poland outfit that have failed to impress thus far.

Still, beating Senegal on Sunday would see Japan come a long way in making amends for Brazil 2014 and taking a step towards reclaiming their status as the powerhouses of Asia.