Confidence the key for Samurai Blue

Japan were ultimately a little fortunate to make it into the Round of 16 at the World Cup, but now they’re there they need to play with confidence… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Monday 2nd July, 2018

If the World Cup has shown us anything, it is once again that in football everything can change in an instant.

When the Samurai Blue made a muted departure from Japan after the 2-0 defeat to Ghana on 30 May, expectations on the team were far from high. The squad looked stale, the mood around the team was negative, and the usual fervour amongst fans – both core and casual – was notable by its absence.

An incredible start to the game against Colombia saw everything turn on its head, however, as Japan were handed a golden opportunity to snatch a hugely unexpected three points. Akira Nishino’s side made it harder than they needed but managed to do just that, and that momentum carried them through the Senegal game as well, as they twice came from a goal behind to secure a point and leave their fate in their own hands.

Ninety minutes on and the mood has swung again though, with Nishino’s personnel and tactical choices against Poland creating much debate, and the manner in which they ultimately dragged themselves over the line drawing criticism both domestically and overseas.

The coach himself admitted to feeling uneasy about ordering his players to essentially stop playing for the final 10 minutes in Volgograd despite being 1-0 down, but countered that he only did what he felt was necessary

It was a very tough decision, of course,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “We conceded a goal, but with the time passing the other match moved. When I put on [Makoto] Hasebe I told him what was in my mind: ‘Do not go for any high risks.’ I told him not to concede any yellow cards, go 4-1-4-1, defensive, and then I told him to tell the team to ‘stay put’. We could not concede another goal.

“I’m not too happy about this but I forced my players to do what I said. We did not go for victory, but we just relied on the other match. I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans. The World Cup is such that these things happen. And we went through. Therefore it was perhaps the right decision.”

And as unsavoury – not to mention nerve-wracking – a way as it was to progress to the Round of 16, he was right; in hindsight it was the correct decision. Just.

Football Channel, 2nd July 2018

The 63-year-old had no option but to gamble after his player rotation and shift to a 4-4-2 formation hadn’t worked out, but in a matter of days everything will blow over and this episode will be consigned to the history books, especially if Japan can put in a positive showing against Belgium on Monday.

The Red Devils were one of only three sides to pick up maximum points in the group stage – along with Uruguay and Croatia – and in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku they have a trio of the best attacking players in the world. Roberto Martinez also had the luxury of being able to rest the bulk of his first choice eleven in their final group game against England, and so they will come into the clash well rested as well as confident.

Japan are yet to keep a clean sheet in Russia and, realistically, it looks unlikely that they will be able to do so against the tournament’s top scorers. Therefore, what better way to erase the memory of that uncomfortable ending in Volgograd than by coming out all guns blazing and taking the game to Belgium?

The team have looked at their best thus far when playing proactively, and in the second half against Colombia and for spells in the second period against Senegal the likes of Gaku Shibasaki, Takashi Inui, and Yuya Osako caused plenty of problems in the final third. Further to that, Keisuke Honda has demonstrated that he has no objections to being used as an impact sub – characteristically full of confidence that he can make a difference and backing it up with a vital goal and assist.

The likes of Iceland, Switzerland, and South Korea served up shock results in the group stages against Argentina, Brazil, and Germany, and Japan should be using those performances as motivation heading into this clash.

The odds are undoubtedly stacked against them, and if they were to win in Rostov-on-Don it would constitute one of the upsets of the tournament. They shouldn’t surrender to the inevitable though, but instead make Belgium win the game. Be confident on the ball, commit men forwards, take risks.

And if that’s still not enough then at least they will exit the competition in style. The performance is almost more important than the result, and if Japan can deliver on that front then the mood will be positive again, win or lose.

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July 2018

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