Japan rediscovers its personality and its 'football'

By virtue of their enthralling 2-2 tie in the second round of Group G matches played Sunday, Japan and Senegal can assure themselves of a spot in the round of 16 by getting at least a point in their final games.

Both teams have four points. Colombia is in third place with three and pointless Poland has been eliminated. In the final round of group play on Thursday, Senegal plays Colombia and Japan faces Poland. Japan could lose to Poland and still advance but it will automatically advance by getting at least a point regardless of what happens in the other game.

And it best not assume that because Poland can’t advance the game will be an easy one. Already at this World Cup, a team with no hope of going to the knockout round has battled its way to victory. Peru capped off its praiseworthy performance by snuffing out the faint hopes of Australia, 2-0, and Poland can do the same to Japan by conjuring up a similar effort to that of its team at the 2002 World Cup.

After beating Portugal and tying South Korea, the U.S. held four points but not a guaranteed place in the round of 16 heading into its group finale against Poland. Rather than going through the motions, Poland shook up its starting lineup with seven changes, came out firing, and overran the U.S. en route to a 3-1 defeat. 

That result would have knocked out the Americans had not South Korea, which needed only a tie to win the group, scored a late goal that dumped out Portugal instead. Japan must approach the Poland game with the mindset it can’t rely on anybody except itself.

Japan is riding a wave of momentum from shocking Colombia, 2-1, in its opener and then fighting back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to tie Senegal. Colombia went down to 10 men in the opening minutes and despite equalizing fell victim to fatigue, yet still Japan needed to score a second goal to claim all three points.

Yuya Osako struck for Japan in the 73rd minute, giving his nation its first-ever World Cup victory against a South American team in four meetings. Four years ago, Colombia drilled Japan, 4-1, on the last day of group play to send it home with just one point from three games. The defeat of Colombia and comeback against Senegal has players convinced the personality of this team compared to that of 2014 is superior.

“I think we prepared ourselves to come back to the World Cup one more time after 2014 and try to deliver results, and results haven’t been bad in our last two games,” veteran striker Keisuke Honda, who along with four of his teammates is playing in his third World Cup. Those who take field against Poland will tie former international Hidetoshi Nakata’s record for most World Cup appearances with 10.

On the job less than three months, head coach Akira Nishino -- who was working as technical director when the Japanese soccer federation (JFA) decided to fire Vahid Halilhodzic -- took over to correct serious problems of communication and player trust cited by JFA president Kozo Tashima. Friction between Halilhodzic and several players, including Honda, had intensified to the point Honda’s place in the World Cup squad was under threat.

“This has become an urgent situation,” Tashima said. “For the new coach, we had no choice but to promote from within the association as the World Cup is only two months away. We thought the coach should be someone who has watched this team the most from within the association.”

Japan is competing in its sixth successive World Cup and only twice has advanced to the round of 16. As co-host along with South Korea in 2002, it fell in the knockout round to Turkey, 1-0, and eight years ago was eliminated on penalty kicks, 5-3, by Paraguay after 120 minutes of play ended goalless.

In the wake of the 2014 disappointment, head coach Alberto Zacherroni was fired. Halilhodzic, who had coached Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, was hired the following year. The JFA took a big risk replacing him at such a late stage. Nishino’s only previous coaching experience in a major tournament was with Japan at the 1996 Olympics. He won a J-League title with Gamba Osaka in 2005 and after coaching several other Japanese clubs joined the JFA as technical director in 2015.

“I get the impression that Nishino just happens to have us playing the kind of football we wanted to play in 2014,” said Honda, 32. He became the first Japanese player to score in three World Cups by netting the second equalizer as a sub in the Senegal game. “I think the way we battled in particular against Senegal was what we had aimed to do in 2014. We expressed ourselves with what I had long described as ‘our football.’”

Nishino fielded the same starting XI in the first two games but is pondering changes for the Blue Samurai against Poland. Both teams are playing on three days' rest and Poland is expected to field at least a few fresh players, as it did in 2002. Anxious for any success to salvage its tournament, it will not sideline the likes of striker Robert Lewandowski, who is one of several players quite capable of ruining Japan's World Cup.

One change for Japan could be veteran Shinji Okazaki for Osako, yet Okazaki is adamant the team’s persona will be the same.

“Our situation is by no means safe, everybody in the team is well aware of that,” Okazaki told the Kyodo news agency. “Poland are a tough team and that is why they are ranked eighth in the world. We have to approach this match the same way we did the first two.”<
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