Amidst the heartbreak, Japan are back where they belong

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at a valiant effort at the 2018 FIFA World Cup by Japan which confirms they are back where they belong.

So, in the end, there was no fairy tale for Japan at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

No history-making feat as they came up short in becoming the first Japanese side to reach the quarter-finals on world football’s biggest stage.

But, despite Monday’s 3-2 defeat to Belgium – and the heartbreaking nature of it – there is a huge positive to embrace when all the dust has settled and the pain subsided.

The Samurai Blue are back where they belong.

Bear in mind that, four years ago in Brazil, Japan – with 11 stars from the current crop – suffered the ignominy of meekly bowing out in the group stage with just one point from three games.

This was a team boasting the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe, Maya Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki, all supposedly at the peak of their powers.

So, make no mistake about it – the Japanese came into Russia 2018 with plenty to prove.

Captain Hasebe was brilliant in what must be his final World Cup tournament.

An opening 2-1 win over Colombia was impressive but came against a side which played almost the entire match with ten men, and was followed by a 2-2 draw against Senegal that had as many positives as it had negatives.

Then, needing only to avoid defeat against already-eliminated Poland, Japan contrived to lose 1-0 and only advanced via a better disciplinary record over the Senegalese.

Yet, what saw them draw the most flak was for the way they stroked the ball around for the final ten minutes while trailing to the Poles, in hope that Colombia would hold on to their 1-0 lead over Senegal.

It was the unconvincing way they reached the Round of 16 that had many predicting a comfortable, maybe even emphatic, win for Belgium at the Rostov Arena on Monday.

Instead, Japan came out and delivered coach Akira Nishino’s plan to perfection, allowing their opponents possession but pressing high up and looking to break forward with speed and intent when opportunities arose.

Nishino deserves credit having only taken over 70 days before the start of Japan’s World Cup campaign.

With 52 minutes gone, they found themselves 2-0 up following a couple of fine efforts from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui, the latter’s destined to make the post-tournament collation of best goals.

Perhaps quite predictably, Belgium hit back through headers by Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini but, even when extra-time beckoned, Japan still wanted to win – a far cry from a few days earlier against Poland.

This devil-may-care attitude arguably led to their downfall as, after Honda’s fizzing 35-yard freekick was saved by Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium goalkeeper gobbled up the resultant corner and initiated a blistering counterattack which led to Nacer Chadli netting a 94th-minute winner.

Yes, ultimately, Japan failed to hold on to a two-goal lead and some one would even label their adventurous approach in the final seconds as naïve.

That is not an unfair statement and, at the end of the day, the World Cup only rewards those who win, not those who valiantly tried to.

Still, with their display against the Belgians, what Japan achieved was show that a side from Asia can not only aspire to match it with the world’s best but also do so.

Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku… the list of Belgium’s A-listers goes on and, for 93 minutes, their Japanese opponents had their measure and even bettered them in moments.

The most-heartening aspect of Japan’s displays as a whole is the fact that the new generation has stepped forward to take on the mantle.

Although Honda had his moments of brilliance, he largely played the role of impact substitute, while Okazaki – for so long the lone tireless toiler up forward – was only afforded 68 minutes in total.

Granted, Hasebe, Kagawa, Nagatomo and Yoshida continued to play pivotal roles but Japan’s charge was arguably fuelled by Yuya Osako, Haraguchi, Gaku Shibasaki and Hiroki Sakai – all still in their 20s.

Shoji more than held his own against Premier League star Lukaku.

There was also 25-year-old Gen Shoji, still plying his trade in the J1 League with Kashima Antlers but who did not look out place battling it out with Lukaku and Radamel Falcao.

In four years’ time, it will be this brigade that spearheads another Japan bid to reach their maiden quarter-final appearance and they will do so with the experience of having come so close on this occasion.

And there is still plenty more talent to come through with Takuma Asano, Shoya Nakajima, Yosuke Ideguchi and Kenyu Sugimoto just some of those waiting in the wings.

Tears for Japan’s fans but – like their team – they can be proud in defeat.

So, despite all the pre-tournament prophecies of doom and gloom, Japanese football isn’t exactly in a bad state.

Just in case anyone needed proof, the Samurai Blue did a pretty good job in Rostov on Monday.