Australia’s famous win in Kaiserslautern in 2006 was painful for Japan, but the Socceroos could take these two side’s rivalry to another level on Tuesday, when they have an opportunity to blast a massive hole in the Samurai Blue’s chances of even reaching the World Cup. Few would have predicted that, heading into the fourth game of this phase of qualification, Australia could open up a nine-point lead over the team long regarded as Asia’s best.
They are not looking like that at the moment. Japan may have reached double figures against Mongolia and Myanmar in the previous rounds but so far in this stage, from which just the top two teams in the group automatically qualify for the tournament in Qatar, they have scored just one goal in three games.
That solitary strike was enough to beat China, though the Chinese are kicking themselves for paying the four-time Asian champions too much respect and not getting at them as much as they should. That was a welcome win for Japan as it was sandwiched between 1-0 defeats at home to Oman in September and Saudi Arabia on Thursday. The first was a shock, but deserved The second was less surprising, but still deserved. In both, Japan were uncharacteristically sloppy with and without the ball and they were punished for their mistakes.
“We got tired and lost our rhythm, that’s when they capitalised and scored,” coach Hajime Moriyasu said after the loss at King Abdullah Sports City. “If we don’t give up, I believe we can still win a ticket to the World Cup.”
Recent results mean that Moriyasu cannot think that far ahead. Before Thursday there were growing concerns that the man who led Sanfrecce Hiroshima to three J-League titles between 2012 and 2015 was not the right person to take a talented national team to the upper echelons of world football. Now there are concerns they won’t get to the World Cup at all.
The lack of in-game management is also grating. The coach, more pragmatic than progressive, says he trusts his players to make the necessary adjustments inside the 90 minutes but there has not been much evidence of that. Had the visibly tired and struggling Gaku Shibasaki been withdrawn two minutes before his wayward backpass led to Saudi Arabia’s goal, and not two minutes after, then the match could have ended differently.
It has been pointed out in the Japanese media that despite there being more and more top-class players with top-class experience – Takumi Minamino, Kyogo Furuhashi and Takehiro Tomiyasu belong to Liverpool, Celtic and Arsenal respectively, while the leagues of Germany, Spain, Italy and France are also represented – results and performances are getting worse. Unsurprisingly, questions have been asked as to whether this overwhelmingly Europe-based squad needs a coach who has similar international experience. The hashtag “fire Moriyasu” has been trending on social media. Even the coach’s supporters have admitted that he has not been getting the best out of his players.
Kozo Tashima, the genial chairman of the Japan FA, is sticking by his man for now. “If we beat Australia then the group will be wide open,” he said. “We hope that the whole of Japan will support the team and so we can get that place at the World Cup. We have to stay positive as there are still seven games remaining.” Fans have pointed out that he said something similar about being nine games left after the Oman loss. Tashima remembers 2010 when there was a push to change Takeshi Okada before the World Cup. The JFA resisted and Okada took the team to within a penalty shootout of the quarter-finals. Despite that, if Japan fail to win on Tuesday it is unlikely Moriyasu will be in charge for the trip to Vietnam next month. Already potential replacements are being discussed.
His Australian counterpart Graham Arnold is in the opposite situation, arriving in Saitama on the back of 11 successive wins and with a team buzzing with belief. But it goes without saying that while Japan may be wounded, they are still dangerous with a strength in depth unmatched in Asia. There will be determination to start well but while the Socceroos may prefer to attack a vulnerable defence and chip away at a brittle confidence, perhaps it will be better to sit back for the opening period and frustrate the home team.
For the visitors, a draw would be a good result but a win would be one for the ages, leaving Japan with a gap that they would not be able to overturn. It would not only put one Australian foot in Qatar, a place where the Socceroos have looked comfortable so far in qualification, but it would also inflict a historic and heartbreaking defeat on a big rival, one to put that sunny day in Kaiserslautern in the shade.