During the qualifying campaign for the last World Cup Japan were lagging way behind Australia, and the Socceroos were well aware of their superiority. Things are a little different this time around…
“Nippon: Forever in Our Shadow,” read the banner in Melbourne in 2009.
Australia certainly had the better of things in the early exchanges of the ever-developing rivalry with Japan, and having inflicted that painful 3-1 loss in Kaiserslautern in 2006 and wrapped up top spot in the qualifying stages thanks to another Tim Cahill brace four years ago it was hard to argue with the sentiment.
A lot has changed in four years though, and while it may be a stretch to say that the shoe is now on the other foot, the Samurai Blue are certainly matching Australia blow for blow.
The Australians paid plenty of reference before and after the game to the fact that Japan haven’t beaten them in regulation play for 12 years, but that is clutching at straws. As they found out at Saitama Stadium as Keisuke Honda rifled home his 91st minute penalty, not all matches are won or lost in 90 minutes. Doha in 2011 and Hanoi in 2007 also demonstrate that point.
Stats are always the most flexible of weapons anyway, and they can easily be manipulated to tell you what you want to hear. If you look at the most basic figures, for instance – wins, draws and losses – the two nations are dead even: six wins apiece and eight draws.
It’s true that Japan haven’t beaten the Socceroos in six attempts in World Cup qualifying but, if we ignore the two matches from 1969, they have never needed to. The sides are usually the two favourites in their group and thus would settle for a share of the spoils when they come face-to-face. Australia have only won once themselves in recent times, and that was the “in our shadow” game at Melbourne Cricket Ground when the result was irrelevant and both teams were already assured of their places at South Africa 2010.
This time, too, a point was enough for Japan to stamp their ticket to Brazil – even a loss, it turned out, would have seen them through as well, albeit in slightly underwhelming style – and would also leave the Socceroos’ fate in their own hands, with two home games to come.
“A point’s a massive point here,” Japan’s former nemesis Tim Cahill conceded after the game. “[Our performance] gives us the confidence as a group to know that we can play good football. This is a hard stage to play on and also difficult circumstances.”
Captain Lucas Neill also admitted as much, although his satisfaction was tinged with disappointment having come so close to snatching a huge victory.
“How do I feel?” he responded to the obvious question. “I’m feeling like before the game I would have taken that point but as the way the game played out I think we deserved all three, so it feels like two points dropped.”
Even so, he concluded that a draw was good enough when considering the esteem the current Japan team are held in.
“They’re a fantastic team, this is a very tough place to come and get points. This is a talented team, arguably the best Japanese team we’ve faced for a long time.”
I asked if he felt they had strengthened mentally since themselves experiencing that harrowing reverse at the 2006 World Cup, which also came late in the game.
“Not that late,” he laughed. “91 minutes. I don’t know if they were ever going to fold. This team is playing with a lot of confidence. They’ve got guys now playing at the best teams in the world, especially in Europe, their J.League is fantastic, it’s at a high standard and every year you can notice an improvement.”
The Socceroos have witnessed that improvement firsthand over the past few years and Cahill’s comments demonstrated that it is no longer the Australians having things all their own way.
“Congratulations to Japan, they’re a fantastic team. I think it’s the first time they’ve qualified at home and now we need to look forward and push on and join them in the qualification.”
The Samurai Blue are on their way to Brazil, and as they jet off to start preparing at the Confederations Cup Australia still need points. Who’s casting a shadow now?