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Last Thursday at Saitama Stadium on the northern fringes of the Tokyo metropolitan region, Japan produced a consummate all-round performance to clinch their place at next year’s World Cup finals.

In the lead up, hopes and confidence from most away fans had been high that Australia could prevail and instead be the one to secure direct qualification.

At the very least an acceptable one point (draw) was expected to be achieved which would have taken the pressure off a little before the final group game five days later.

The heat and high humidity experienced in Tokyo all week relented, replaced by much cooler weather with rain showers on match day which provided almost ideal playing conditions.

The build-up in the afternoon involved numerous pregame meet ups, both informal and organised functions, catering for independent travelling away fans and large tour groups alike.

Collection of pre-purchased tickets by Socceroos fans was efficient via the Will Call Window. However, it was most disappointing that arrangements for a dedicated priority entry for our supporters through the South Gate previously agreed to by the Japan FA were not fulfilled.

Early entry was essential to gain one of the best vantage points in the away bays of the South Side Stand.  The contingent of Aussies fans eventually grew to around 3,000 within the sold-out stadium of almost 60,000 fans.

The famous ‘Ultra Nippon’ active fans group in their many thousands were to provide amazing vocal and visual support for the home side throughout the evening. Hundreds had camped out since early morning, and even overnight we assume, to wait for entry and gain prime positions in the general admission northern end.

 

Once the starting line ups were announced online and at the ground, general feelings amongst our supporters were of bewilderment that coach Ange Postecoglou had opted to not go with a specialist number 9 striker.

An acute illness ruled out star number 10 playmaker Aaron Mooy, replaced by James Troisi. A back three defensive formation was retained which was subsequently exploited by the counter attacking fluency of the hosts.

From soon after the kick off, the Samurai Blue began to create the better chances especially exploiting out wide with their speed and technical agility.

A Matthew Leckie shot from outside the box was deflected off the post was one of the rare occasions when the visitors produced a clear cut shot on target.

Only five minutes before half-time, Japan exploited a lapse in defensive concentration and peripheral awareness. This allowed a sublime cross from Yuto Nagatomo to beat the offside trap for Takuma Asano to deftly slip the ball past keeper Maty Ryan.

It was not until the hour mark that Australia made its first substitution, with Tomi Juric coming on, followed soon after by Tim Cahill. Despite some increased pressure and half chances created, the well organised Japanese defence held firm.

One of the best individual goals ever seen in an Asian Confederation World Cup qualifier was produced by Yosuke Ideguchi on 82 minutes.

After that spectacular long-range strike, the result was all but decided and at full time the home team and crowd elation erupted with celebrations.

Quite simply, Japan were by far the superior side in every area on the park. Australia had dominated the possession with 63 per cent, yet such statistics mean very little if little is produced in the final third and a side fails to score.

Congratulations to our fiercest and most worthy rival team in Asian football, and to their wonderful fans who amidst a glorious victory and success were gracious, respectful and friendly after the game.

For our players, fans and officials the loss was a huge emotional let-down. Credit goes to the entire squad led by captain Mark Milligan who lifted themselves to come over to the Australian supporter’s section, and share in mutual recognition and salutes.

It was a privilege to renew contact on the terraces with legendary German-based Socceroos supporter and co-ordinator of many previous events for fans, Andre Kruger.

In the rawness, there was much discussion and even anger about the tactics employed by our Asian Cup winning head coach.

Amongst the big questions, why was there no back four against such a quality opponent, and after its successful application at the 2015 Asian Cup?

Has some stubbornness got in the way of some much-needed pragmatism by Ange in the qualification campaign? Do we need a reality check as to the quality and depth of our available players to meet requirements in key roles for such a defensive system?

Some of these important issues need to be explored further as part of fearless and constructive debate after the next qualifier.

A big thank you to my marvellous host Kenichi Kojima in Tokyo who looked after us so well with his generous home hospitality and food, complemented by some marvellous restaurant experiences.

After a leisurely recovery day on Friday, I flew overnight with Jetstar to Sydney for three days at my Australian residence in the Blue Mountains.

On Tuesday morning, I fly to Melbourne for the final qualification game against Thailand at AAMI Park.

In the face of challenges and valid criticisms outlined above, we must continue with unconditional support for our national team and play a vital role as the ‘12th man’.

It is now up to our Socceroos to refocus and produce a reinvigorated performance to firstly win and secondly by at least a three-goal margin.

To help achieve these objectives the likely return of Mooy and Juric to full fitness for the starting line-up will be welcome news.

Here’s to a resounding, bounce back Australian victory to keep alive our direct qualification for Russia 2018!


Categories: Opinion | Socceroos

socceroos, travelling fans, andre krueger, world cup qualifier, japan, #roadtorussia

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