Despite being in what could be perceived as the World Cup’s ‘Group of Life’ so to speak, Japan seemed dead in the water for many experts. But, thanks to a historic win over 2014 quarterfinalists, Colombia – the first Asian side to defeat a South American outfit at a World Cup – the land of the Rising Sun has thrown Group H into an interesting quandary.
Yes, they had a bit of (very) early luck to thank in part, but this performance gave insight into a side in transition that might finally be putting things together. Here are two takeaways following an impressive result for the Japanese.
Changing of the Guard
No longer are Japan overly reliant on the likes of Keisuke Honda, Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Okazaki, stalwarts who carried the national team for the longest while. Ever since Japan’s disappointing group stage exit in 2014, followed by an underwhelming quarterfinal exit to the United Arab Emirates in the following year’s Asian Cup, new attacking talents have emerged across the major European leagues and are occupying more prominent roles in the national setup.
On Tuesday, you saw bits of that Werder Bremen’s newly-acquired striker, Yuya Osako, rounding off an otherwise commendable effort with the game-winner. Takashi Inui and Gaku Shibasaki offered bits of creative nous that La Liga fans, particularly Eibar and Getafe, should be familiar with. Inui and Osako’s movement caused problems for Colombia’s backline, while Shibasaki did a lot of the dirty work in the middle, winning the ball, breaking up counters alongside Hasebe and doing a solid job of shielding James Rodríguez when he came on near the half-hour mark.
Add the likes of Mainz striker, Yoshinori Muto, to the mix and Japan has fresh attacking options to call upon should their old guard be unable to shoulder the responsibility they’re used to.
Despite all this fresh talent to call upon, the main man for the East Asian side remains Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa. He punished Carlos Sanchez’s mindless red card in the first three minutes, slotting home the penalty (what’s up with all these spot kicks in Russia by the way?) to put his side ahead.
From there, we saw an exhibition that BVB fans have been used to for so long (though not as much these days) and Manchester United didn’t see enough of. Osako was officially named Man of the Match, and it’s hard to argue against it. However, Kagawa was the man who stirred the drink and eventually left Colombia parched after having to defend for so long while down a man. Osako and others were able to flourish because of Kagawa’s smart passing and control, also working hard to retrieve the ball so Japan could maximise their possession advantage.
Shinji Kagawa’s game by numbers vs Colombia:
2 chances created
4 ball recoveries
88% pass accuracy
100% tackles won
100% dribbles completed
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) June 19, 2018
It’s early, but given that Japan overcame arguably their toughest group opponent thus far, they’ll like their chances against Poland and Senegal as they aim to advance past the group stage for the first time since South Africa 2010. If they are to ensure this performance was not a false dawn, Kagawa must lead by example and Japan’s new blood must pump up their attack if this Rising Sun aims to remain sky high in Russia.