Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Japan’s conviction growing stronger with each step at World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

A World Cup campaign that threatened to be an ordeal for Japan is turning into one of steadily growing conviction. If the Samurai Blue can produce another performance like Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Senegal, a place in the knockout round will be theirs for the taking.

Japan defied the odds again in Russia by twice fighting back from a goal down to claim a point against the West Africans, giving Akira Nishino’s side four points from two games following an opening 2-1 win over Colombia. Japan can clinch a place in the second round with at least a draw against Poland in Volgograd on Thursday, although even a defeat could see the team advance past the group stage for the third time in World Cup history.

Such a strong position looked far beyond reach for much of the first half in Yekaterinburg on Sunday, with Senegal taking an 11th-minute lead through Sadio Mane and Japan looking likely to concede again at any moment. Takashi Inui’s 34th-minute equalizer changed the face of the game entirely, however, and from that point on Japan found a composure and attacking verve that allowed it to hit back again through Keisuke Honda in the 78th minute after Moussa Wague’s 71st-minute goal looked to have given Senegal all three points.

“Japan started the game with the same lineup as against Colombia and they were looking to continue with that same momentum and motivation,” former Japan midfielder Keita Suzuki wrote in Monday’s Sports Nippon. “The idea was not to try to match up with Senegal but for Japan to play its own game. Nishino’s message not to be scared of the opposition looks to have sunk in.”

Much had been made of the two teams’ contrasting characteristics in the buildup to the game, with Senegal manager Aliou Cisse angrily dismissing suggestions that it would be a battle between Japan’s brain and Senegal’s brawn. In Gaku Shibasaki, however, Japan had a player capable of finding holes in the opposition defense with almost surgical precision, and Nishino’s tactics exploited the midfielder’s ability to the fullest.

“The team completely revolved around Shibasaki,” former Japan defender Yutaka Akita wrote in Monday’s Nikkan Sports. “If Shibasaki got the ball in a good position, the other players were able to try to get into the spaces behind the opposition defense. That gives you a good chance of scoring but it’s also risky. You can’t do that if you don’t trust the passer. It was huge for the team that Shibasaki was able to make his presence felt. It bodes well for the knockout round.”

Honda — for so long the player Japan relied on to make things happen — also had a crucial role to play despite starting on the bench for the second straight game. The veteran replaced Shinji Kagawa in the 72nd minute and found the net just six minutes later, making him the first Japanese player to score in three different World Cups.

“It was a great ball from Takashi, and it would have been bad if I had missed it,” said Honda. “We could go out of the tournament if we lose the next match so it’s a huge game. We still feel a sense of urgency. If I’m being honest I have to say I wanted us to settle it today. But that’s how tough the World Cup is. Now I want to take a good look at Poland before we play them in the next game.”

But Japan’s performance was also not without its flaws. Nishino said he would “analyze the situation” regarding first-choice goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima after his feeble punch gifted Senegal its opening goal, with the veteran also at fault for Colombia’s equalizer in the previous game.

“A comedy of errors,” was how FIFA’s official website described Japan’s efforts to keep out Mane, while on the BBC, former England international Phil Neville questioned Kawashima’s decision to punch that ball rather than catch it.

Changing goalkeepers at such a critical stage of the campaign would be a huge decision, but then Japan has already seen the benefits of being bold first-hand in Russia. The team’s worst moments have come when the players have allowed the opposition to take the initiative, and any repeat could prove costly against a Poland team badly smarting from its early exit from the tournament.

“The players were confident and positive, and I myself thought we could have gone for the victory,” said Nishino.

With the same attitude on Thursday, Japan could extend its stay in Russia a while longer.