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.
Many people think this round of sixteen tie between Japan and Belgium is going to be the most one sided knockout tie of this World Cup and the Asian team will be out to prove many a doubter wrong. Belgium may have pushed aside all in their way during the group stages but Japan also deserved to qualify from what was perhaps the most evenly spread group in terms of competition.
The game at the Rostov Arena will see the big names and familiar faces come back into both line ups as the two sides rested players amid rotation during the last set of group game fixtures. For Belgium, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne will be the big hitters and Japan would’ve liked to see them remain on the sidelines. For Japan, Akira Nashino will bring back in playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui, captain Makoto Hasebe and perhaps striker Yuya Osaka who has impressed with regular goal scorer Shinji Okazaki battling back to fitness.
The final set of games in Group H were set up perfectly with three teams battling it out for just two places in the next round. With their draw against Senegal, Japan stayed level at the top of the group and knew that a draw against Poland would be enough to see them through to the knockout stages. Japan could also still qualify through the group with a loss but would need Colombia to beat Senegal. This suited Japan as Colombia needed to win themselves to ensure qualification but the Samurai Blue would have wanted to leave matters in their own hands as Senegal needed only one point to finish in the top two spots.
As expected, the Japanese struggled against Senegalese counterattacks but perhaps unexpectedly for them they managed to battle out a 2-2 draw against a team they knew were stronger than them all across the pitch. Japan played better than perhaps even they thought they would and now find themselves in a great position to qualify from Group H.
The draw against Senegal saw Japan stay level at the top of the group with their African counterparts whilst Colombia’s comprehensive win against Poland saw the Eastern European country crash out with a whimper. With these two results Japan now understand that a draw or better against an already knocked out Poland will see them qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time since 2010. The Samurai Blue could also advance to the knockout stages with a loss if Senegal beats Colombia but will want to leave matters in their own hands.
This was the first time Senegal have ever played an Asian team in the World Cup with the match played just inside Asia at the Ekaterinburg stadium. Japan strolled out of the tunnel with an unchanged lineup after the winning start against Colombia. There was one change for Senegal with Stoke striker Diouf dropped so the goalscorer against Poland, M’Baye Niang could move into a central position with Sadio Mane and Ismaili Sarr on the flanks.
Straight after Japan’s 2-1 victory over Colombia they were on a flight back to their training camp in Kazan, receiving a heroes welcome from those working there. While those who featured significantly in the match spent time in recovery, others who didn’t feature so prominently such as Shinji Okazaki trained in chilly conditions using Rubin Kazan’s match-day facilities. There were beaming smiles on the faces of the whole squad and rightly so having beaten the toughest team on paper in their group but the experienced heads knew the biggest challenges were yet to come.
Left-back Yuto Nagatomo, now plying his trade at Galatasaray in Turkey, spoke to the Japanese Football Association about the Colombia game saying “Even if we win the first match, it means nothing if we lose the next two matches. It’s important to gain confidence but we struggled against a Colombian side who were a man short. We are the weakest team in our group in terms of quality. We must stay realistic and make our decisions rationally or else we may be hit hard in the next two matches.”
Japan kicked off their World Cup campaign against Colombia in the smallest host city of the World Cup, Mordovia. In a very competitive Group H alongside Senegal and Poland there was no guarantee of progressing from the group stages for either side. Both Japan and Colombia met in the group stages four years ago in Brazil with the South Americans coming up trumps in a 4-1 victory. Two of the scorers that day for Colombia were Jackson Martinez who was not called up to the squad and James Rodriguez who sees muscle problems resign him to a role among the substitutes; the other scorer Juan Cuadrado started on the right wing. Japan’s scorer that day was Shinji Okazaki who also shared the unfortunate fate of Rodriguez, slight muscle fatigue seeing Yuya Osaka, relegated with Koln last season in the Bundesliga, start in the striker position.