Japan’s game against Australia tomorrow night provides the sternest test of the final round of World Cup qualifiers so far, and will demonstrate whether this group of players is as tough mentally as coach Vahid Halilhodzic insists… (日本語版はこちらです)
There was a lot of talk about ‘mental strength’ and ‘courage’ after Japan’s 2-1 win over Iraq on Thursday night, when in truth neither was on display in huge quantities.
Yes, Vahid Halilhodzic’s side did claim the three points on offer with a dramatic late winner, but last gasp wonder strikes can always be looked at in two ways; as a signifier that a team doesn’t give up or, conversely, that it isn’t able to finish opponents off in a more effective manner.
Bearing in mind the defeat against UAE in the Samurai Blue’s previous home match and the fact that this inability to control games at the highest level is becoming a recurring problem, any claims that this team is especially resilient would seem optimistic.
“We often use the word ‘naïve’ but I think the players demonstrated very strong courage – I think it was the first time the players were shouting on the pitch and I think that was rewarded at the very end,” Halilhodzic said after the game. “I don’t think that today was a good victory, but I think it was a courageous victory. Even the strongest teams in the world can’t always win with a beautiful victory.”
That is undoubtedly true, but what the best teams do do is dominate games and adjust the tempo depending on the situation. That is also a way of exhibiting mental strength and courage. Japan scored first against UAE and Iraq but on both occasions failed to drive home their advantage after moving in front and allowed the opposition to pull level.
There is absolutely no margin for error on Tuesday against Australia, and if Japan allow the hosts to dictate the pace of the game in Melbourne then they will be returning empty handed and even further off the pace in Group B.
That fact has not escaped Keisuke Honda, who was as forthright as ever after Thursday’s narrow win.
“We understand the things the coach is asking of us but football is not only about doing what the coach says, all kinds of situations arise outside of that and the players need to have a sense for and be able to respond to those things,” he said, before turning his attention to the Australia game.
“There’s a way of playing away from home, we need to be more intelligent. Things like a player using their body to keep the ball for two or three seconds or where balls are cleared to will change the situation – it’s very precise things. Everyone on the pitch understands that in difficult spells it comes down to each individual decision.
“We’ve all been playing football for maybe 20 years and know what to do so we have no option but to believe in what we have been building. If there isn’t a harmony between the physical and mental sides then it isn’t possible to win away against Australia.”
One particular area of concern is the team’s ongoing inability to deal with set pieces.
“I think Australia will try to take advantage of those even more, so we can’t give away too many free kicks, and when we do we have to make sure to mark tighter than today,” Maya Yoshida said after the win over Iraq.
The tendency to resort to route one football as the clock runs down is also not ideal for a team centred upon possession-based and technical football, and that will be even truer against Australian players who are more than used to contesting aerial battles.
“Today we went direct and it worked out ok for us, but I think that will be more difficult against Australia,” Yoshida conceded, although he bristled a little at the suggestion that the approach doesn’t suit Japan’s style after it forced the winner against Iraq.
“Well, we made the chance today didn’t we?” he said in reference to the late push which produced Hotaru Yamaguchi’s wonder strike, before admitting that the long ball approach wasn’t something the team had worked on in training.
“No, we didn’t practice it, we didn’t have time. But I think everyone understands how it works; it’s not so difficult. Anyway, maybe it’s up to you guys to write whether ‘power play’ suits Japan or not.”
Whether the coach or players admit it or not there is certainly a tension in the side at the moment, and qualification for a sixth straight World Cup finals is looking increasingly uncertain.
Of course, in football form can turn in the blink of an eye, and just because Japan is stuttering out of the starting blocks in the final round of qualifying it doesn’t mean they can’t correct their stride for the business end of the campaign. A first ever win away to Australia would certainly provide some solid foundations on which to build that recovery, and Shinji Okazaki sees no reason why that can’t be achieved.
“We believe we can destroy that jinx,” the Leicester City striker – who has learned a thing or two about upsetting the odds in the past year – said on Thursday.
“In all honesty they don’t have as many players doing well in Europe as they used to – of course we have plenty of squad players too – but I don’t think they have too much confidence and it will be a really close battle. We both have our pride, but I don’t think they are especially full of confidence at the moment and we have to try and take advantage of that.
“When it comes down to it I think it will be 50/50. We have to be able to beat that kind of big opponent, and to that end I think this win was very important for us.”
As the cliché goes, in football the next game is always the most important though, and if Japan come out on the wrong end of the result against the Socceroos then they will certainly need a lot of courage to get themselves back on course for Russia.