From the shadows

The rivalry between Japan and Australia has seen plenty of back and forth over the years – and, indeed, over the past year – but the Samurai Blue are now in the ascendancy as they target the win that would secure their place at Qatar 2022… (日本語版)

With two games of the final round of Qatar 2022 qualifiers to go, Japan are on the brink of their seventh consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals.

Victory over either Australia or Vietnam will book Hajime Moriyasu’s men a ticket to this winter’s showpiece in the Middle East, but a little under six months ago things looked very different for the Samurai Blue and their opponents this coming Thursday in Sydney.

Defeat in two of their first three matches, at home to Oman and away to Saudi Arabia, raised serious questions about Moriyasu’s future, and Japan looked in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1994 as they headed into the crucial home leg against Australia on 12 October.

On the other hand, the Socceroos were flying and in the midst of a record 11 consecutive wins in World Cup qualifying, including their first three games in Group B against China, Vietnam, and Oman.

Television cameras zoomed voyeuristically in on Moriyasu welling up during the national anthems ahead of kick-off, and it would certainly prove to be an emotional night in Saitama as an Ao Tanaka strike and late Aziz Behich own goal secured Japan a 2-1 win, initiating a startling about-turn for both sides. Australia have picked up just six points from their four games since, drawing three and beating Vietnam, while a Junya Ito-inspired Japan have claimed the maximum return to leapfrog Graham Arnold’s side into the second automatic qualification spot.

“It’s hard to put your finger on any one particular thing that has gone wrong, and even now if you look at the cold hard facts Australia has lost just one of their 16 qualifiers to this point, which came against Japan,” founding editor of The Asian Game website and podcast Paul Williams explains. “But Australia has struggled to take the step up against the best teams in Asia, the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia, and has been exposed for a lack of depth and elite talent coming through.

“Late fade outs have hurt too. Australia has dropped points against Japan, China and Oman by conceding goals late in matches. If they had held onto those points, they would be top of the group and almost a sure bet to qualify. So it is small margins.

“I think most fans are realistic about where the team is currently at and realise this is, with the greatest of respect, one of the weaker teams Australia has had over the last decade or two. I think most people realise there are significant and drastic changes that need to be made across the entire game – and Japan is often used as the model that we should follow.”

Indeed, the relationship between Japan and Australia has come full circle since the latter joined the AFC in 2006.

Australia had the better of the early exchanges, coming from behind at the World Cup in Germany that summer to beat Japan 3-1 and then taking top spot in the final round of qualifiers for the 2010 edition in South Africa ahead of Takeshi Okada’s men. The Socceroos fans were confident enough of their superiority over the Samurai Blue to raise a banner reading ‘Nippon: Forever in our Shadow’ during their 2-1 victory against Japan in Melbourne in the course of that qualification campaign, although their bravado backfired spectacularly, with Australia not winning a contest between the sides since.

“I’d call it a rivalry of respect,” Williams says. “There is no hatred towards Japan, and I don’t think there ever has been. I think it’s now well accepted that Japan is on a completely different level to Australia, but at the time of that banner when Australia still had it’s ‘Golden Generation’, the rivalry seemed to be built around who was the strongest team in Asia and for a period Australia had some great results against Japan.

“But the gap between the two is now substantial, Japan are streets ahead. The ‘rivalry’ is still there, but as I said it’s one very much built on respect. Australia still probably doesn’t respect Asian football as much as it should, but the exception to that is Japan. The J.League is popular here, especially since the success of Ange Postecoglou, and we now look up to Japan.”

The Postecoglou effect and increasing success of Japanese players in Europe has further strengthened the country’s reputation, and as such Williams believes Australian observers will be especially anxious about the threat posed by two of the former Yokohama F.Marinos manager’s current charges at Celtic.

“Australians will always be wary of the players they know, so someone like Daizen Maeda will be on our radar [since withdrawn from the squad], same with Reo Hatate.”

On the flip side, he suggests a 34-year-old debutant will be most likely to cause Maya Yoshida and co. trouble at the other end of the pitch.

“Bruno Fornaroli, a Uruguayan, has been one of the best strikers in the A-League for the past six or seven years and has a fantastic goal scoring record. He recently became an Australian citizen and has been called up for the first time in this squad. He is incredibly dangerous. He is a poacher, he can score screamers from distance, he can score free kicks, he can play with his back to goal, and he has a bit of mongrel about him. He doesn’t leave anything on the pitch and doesn’t mind getting dirty to win.”

Williams believes Australia do still have a chance of mounting a sensational push for automatic qualification, although concedes it is a slim one.

“Australia has an incredible home record in competitive qualifying matches. The hope would be that they at least force it to the final game. Japan hasn’t beaten Australia in Australia since Australia joined the AFC, so that will give them some confidence. But in reality, it’s a faint hope. Most expect we will have to navigate our way through the playoffs.”

Japan will certainly hope that’s how things ultimately play out, but having delivered a sucker blow of their own to the Socceroos last year they will be wary of a reaction, and know nothing can be taken for granted.

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