World Cup 2018 – Round of 16 Review (Asia)

What a World Cup it’s been for Asian football. A record amount of points accrued including a draw against the current European champions and a victory against the outgoing World champions, the performances on display alone were a million miles away from what we saw four years ago in Brazil, let alone the results. With Japan’s valiant yet eye-catching defeat to Belgium last night, the curtain came down on a campaign that promises much for the future. Six months out from the Asian Cup, football in the region is at an all time high, Martin Lowe concludes our coverage running the rule over the final proceedings.

Japan – Belgium 2:3 (mark 8/10)

Nishino proves his critics wrong, as Japan head home thanks to last minute winner

An emotional rollercoaster, which had a devastating ending, many will be surprised to come away from let’s be frank a game lost from a solid 2-0 lead, with such a positive reflection. Japan may be heading home from Russia, unable to hang on to their second half advantage, yet fledgling boss Akira Nishino, only in the post since April has succeeded in his primary objectives of qualifying Japan out of the group stage and to oversee a return to a more recognisable Japanese way of playing football.

I admittedly wasn’t enamoured with Nishino’s initial appointment, largely not to do with the coach personally; the timing seemed too late in preparation and his name seemed to fit too nicely to ensure the JFA had a greater influence on the national squad. His initial squad selection fell flat, and from there on he’s seemed to get away with a lot; namely the early man advantage against the strongest team in the group followed by a perplexing final match with Poland where Japan relied in the end on a result that was out of their hands.

In that time, there have been positives, but Belgium represented the greatest of challenges. Nishino had backed himself into a corner with his selection against Poland, given six of his starters were given rests (unnecessarily risky in my opinion), we needed to see what that gained for the Samurai Blue against the Red Devils. To this end, the tactics paid off, Japan pressed high, and continued to push back Belgium going into the break. The first half wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was clear Japan had secured the tactical lead.

Two goals mid-way through the second half, illustrated the required “Japanese style” perfectly. Gaku Shibasaki, so instrumental to Japan’s successes in Russia played the ball in to Genki Haraguchi to give Japan the lead, a rare moment of quality from Japan’s best player under Vahid Halilhodzic, I speak for many in saying that was a fitting way to end his cycle. The second, two players given little opportunity, or when they did didn’t grasp it under the previous regime, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui combined to score brilliantly from distance.

The forthcoming collapse to lose three-nil, came via a number of avenues; lack of concentration, system deficiencies and misfortune. I’ve resisted to say naivety, which has been cited as the main reason behind the final goal in particular where Japan committed men forward for a corner in the last minute of added on time, sparking the devastating counter attack. This for me comes down to the system Nishino deployed, and which was so successful throughout the match, Keisuke Honda had just forced Thibaut Courtois into a solid save moments before, Japan were on top, to retreat and play cautious wasn’t the obvious route.

So, we’re left with smiles on our faces, something that Asian football fans haven’t been afforded for some time on the international scene. The biggest story, as was the case going into the tournament, concerns those in the dugout. From outdated to current, from underprepared to rigorously planned, Akira NIshino has put his doubters in their places. The question will now be asked, will he be given the Asian Cup also to further this truely Japanese progression.

Final Power Rankings

  1. Iran (7/10 v Morocco, 8/10 v Spain, 8/10 v Portugal) – 7.6/10
  2. Japan (7/10 v Colombia, 7/10 v Senegal, 5/10 v Poland, 8/10 v Belgium) – 6.75/10
  3. South Korea (3/10 v Sweden, 6/10 v Mexico, 8/10 v Germany) – 5.6/10
  4. Australia (6/10 v France, 6/10 v Denmark, 4/10 v Peru) – 5.3/10
  5. Saudi Arabia (2/10 v Russia, 5/10 v Uruguay, 7/10 Egypt) – 4.6/10
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