World Cup 2018 : Japan
On paper, their qualification looked easy, but their form was not the level we expect from Japan who are due to meet Colombia, Senegal and Poland04 June 2018 | Paul Williams
World Cup history
This will be Japan’s sixth straight FIFA World Cup after making their first appearance in France in 1998. Their form at the previous five has been mixed. When they’ve been good they’ve been good, and twice they’ve made the Round of 16 (2002 and 2010). But in their three other appearances their record makes for tough reading – nine games played for zero wins, two draws and seven losses.
In Brazil in 2014 they came in with a growing reputation and a dark horse to go deep into the tournament but left with their tails between their legs after failing to impress with just a solitary point to show for their efforts.
Just looking at the stats, Japan’s qualification for Russia would appear to have been a relative breeze – 18 games, 13 wins, three draws and just the two defeats. But as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The reality of the situation was much starker for the Samurai Blue.
Looking at the third and final round of qualification, Japan had to play catch up after a first-up loss to the improving United Arab Emirates at home. Scratchy wins against Thailand (away) and Iraq (home), the latter thanks to a 95thminute goal from Hotaru Yamaguchi, did little to silence the critics that were lining up to take down coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
With their backs to the wall they battled to a 1-1 draw against Australia in Melbourne but did so in the most un-Japanese style we’ve seen in many years - defending deep, inviting pressure and playing on the break. It went against everything we’d come to know about Japan and their style of play.
But Halilhodzic was unapologetic for veering away from the ‘national style’, considering this to be the best method to get a result, and perhaps with an eye to the World Cup where pragmatism can often be the more effective tactic.
The Samurai Blue would lose only once more in the campaign, on the last day against Saudi Arabia when qualification was already secured. But despite making it through the questions marks over Halilhodzic’s future remained and it took until April for the JFA to answer in the most shocking way – axing the Bosnian just two months before the World Cup.
To put it simply – not good. Since securing their qualification with a 2-0 win over Australia in August 2017 the Samurai Blue have played a further 10 matches, but have won only three and those were all battling wins over New Zealand (2-1), North Korea (1-0) and China (2-1). With losses to Brazil (1-3), Belgium (0-1), South Korea (1-4) and Ukraine (1-2), it doesn’t bode well for the World Cup where they will face Colombia, Senegal and Poland.
Japan is one of three Asian nations that have changed their coach since qualifying for the World Cup. After a disappointing European tour in March that included a draw with Mali and loss to Ukraine, and continued rumours of a falling our between the playing group and Halilhodzic, the JFA finally acted with a ruthlessness not often associated with Japanese football. In his place came former Gamba Osaka and Vissel Kobe coach Akira Nishino; not an inspiring choice but a safe pair of hands for Japan as they seek to prevent another disastrous World Cup campaign.
Nishino had great success with Gamba Osaka a decade ago, winning the J.League in 2005, Emperor’s Cup in 2008 and 2009, and the AFC Champions League in 2008. His stints in charge of Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus were less successful, but as the JFA’s technical director and someone who has an intimate knowledge of this group of players, he was a quick and easy solution for the JFA with just eight weeks to go until the World Cup.
If Halilhodzic were still in charge there were no guarantees Keisuke Honda (pictured) would have been a member of Japan’s squad for the World Cup, but with the Bosnian gone, there is now no doubt that Honda and Shinji Kagawa will both be key members of not only the squad, but most likely the starting XI too.
While his influence may have waned over the last few years, Honda remains one of the few genuine game changers and match winners in this Samurai Blue squad, and given his likely inclusion in the starting XI under Nishino, if Japan are to get out of Group H then they will need another tournament like Honda produced in South Africa.
Player to watch
Yoshinori Muto has been on the fringes of the Samurai Blue for a number of years, and has never really been able to match the hype that surrounded him in his early years at FC Tokyo and subsequent move to Germany. But after his best season with Mainz in the Bundesliga, with eight goals from 27 matches, there is no better time for the 25-year-old to announce himself as a genuine international star. With Honda and Kagawa coming to the end of their national team careers, the next generation of talent needs to step up to take their place and this is the ideal time for Muto to do just that.
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