Japan felt confident walking into the stadium, the pressure all on their opponents Belgium. The European outfit brought back in superstars Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku whilst Vincent Kompany came into the back three sandwiched between Tottenham defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Japan unsurprisingly moved back to the same lineup that got four points from their first two games and looked to cause a big shock in a World Cup full of upsets.
The national anthems were sung with pride and the game was off. The first chance quickly fell to Shinji Kagawa who found space alarmingly easy but dragged his shot harmlessly wide. Japan were the first team to settle into a rhythm, playing in their usual intelligent way with Takashi Inui and the impressive Yuto Nagatomo linking up well on the left. The Belgian defence was being tested perhaps more than they expected.
Belgium in possession were full of pace with Hazard’s driving runs forward and De Bruyne’s direct passing causing problems but Japan in the early stages dealt well with central pressure. The movement of the entire Belgian structure was well worked and with Lukaku looking in the mood it seemed only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken despite no real chances being created by other side.
That changed in a flash. Dries Mertens found space on the wide right and whipped in a great ball to Lukaku in the six yard box but Southampton centre-back Maya Yoshida did just enough to put off the usually prolific striker. Yoshida was desperately defending again a minute later with ten Japan players now planted in their own area. Belgium were turning up the gears with both Hazard and then Kompany testing Kawashima in the Japanese goal.
Roberto Martinez clapped his team on from the sidelines but it was Japan’s turn to show what they can do. The two Belgian wing backs were pushed back as Japan pressed high. Shinji Kagawa dropped deep to combine with Shibasaki and Hasebe whilst Inui darted down the left side continually finding space.
Japan finished the half well and came close to breaking the deadlock. Nagatomo found space yet again down the left wing and saw his driven cross diverted goalwards by Haraguchi and his touch was then spilled by Courtois who rushed to jump on the ball to spare his blushes. It was scoreless at the break with Akira Nashino ready to rally his troops for a potentially history making second half.
Whatever was said at half time worked. Shibasaki picked up the ball in midfield before setting free Haraguchi who waited before striking the ball into the far corner past the flailing Thibaut Courtois. The net was bulging and Japan were celebrating. The Belgian golden generation were losing to a Japan team who changed their manager not long before the tournament. Roberto Martinez was perplexed and soon down on his haunches, Eden Hazard rattling the post from inside the box. Martinez was soon to be more than concerned as the score was two. Shinji Kagawa collecting the ball in space yet again and bringing Takashi Inui into the game. Inui, recently signed by Real Betis, smashed the ball from the edge of the box. The movement and curl on the ball took it into the back of the net. Courtois was stunned, as was the entire stadium. Japan were two nil up and exploiting Belgian frailties.
Roberto Martinez had to change things and soon introduced Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. Japan were buoyed by their goals and filled with adrenaline, still pressing Belgium high up the pitch and dominating play despite their lead. Lukaku had two clear chances but Yoshida was colossal at the back and a way back for Belgium looked far from certain.
A route back, however, did come and it came from an unlikely source. Jan Vertonghen who struggled all night against Japan’s movement looped the ball over 35-year-old Kawashima from outside the box with a headed effort. It was the turn of Japan’s defence to be crestfallen but it was not in their nature to sit back. Haraguchi and Inui kept getting in great areas running up and down their sides of the pitch but Belgium were going all out.
The game was level, somehow. Fellaini was causing problems in the air alongside the presence of his United teammate Lukaku. It was to be Fellaini who converted next with Hazard’s teasing cross too good not to head in. Japan were struggling with balls into the box but were committed to their style of play.
As the game ticked into the final ten minutes balls kept flying into the box and Kawashima looked nervous. Japan decided to use their bench for the first time, changing things up with Keisuke Honda replacing goalscorer Haraguchi on the right of midfield and Hotaru Yamaguchi replacing the impressive but booked Gaku Shibasaki in the centre. Honda soon had a golden chance blocked by Vincent Kompany but it was Belgium who were beginning to test Japan’s goalkeeper. Kawashima was forced to make a smart double save from Chadli and Lukaku respectively before thwarting a powerful Vertonghen strike.
Japan had never made a World Cup quarter final but were pushing to do just that. Keisuke Honda saw a fierce long range freekick saved by Courtois with the resulting corner kick whipped in by Kagawa. Japan threw bodies forward and the Belgian counter attack, with one minute of play remaining, was devastating for the Japanese. De Bruyne played it out to Meunier who crossed to Lukaku. The striker let the ball run to substitute Chadli who stroked home with ease. The final whistle blew. The Belgian comeback was complete and Japan were out.
One of, if not the, game of the tournament culminated in Japan gaining praise from pundits across the World and they can go home with their heads well and truly held high. They weren’t even supposed to qualify from the groups but found themselves twenty minutes away from history. The Samurai Blue served their country with dignity and will surely be welcomed back as heroes.
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