Most football fans around the world expect Japan to be one of the Asian representatives at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. After finally breaking through to the elite stage for the 1998 World Cup in France, the one-time sleeping giant of Asian football has made up for lost time with five consecutive appearances among world football’s elite.

But at the halfway point of the Russia 2018 campaign, Japan face a significant challenge if they are to make it six from six. Japan sit second on goal difference in an intensely fought group, where just one point separates the top four sides – a quartet also comprised of a rejuvenated Saudi Arabia under Netherlands’ 2010 FIFA World Cup Final coach Bert van Marwijk, West Asian up-and-comers United Arab Emirates and continental champions Australia.

Japan travel to United Arab Emirates next week, where a poor result - with just two automatic qualification berths available - would leave little margin for error. There is also a small matter of revenge after Japan saw their reign as Asian kings extinguished by UAE at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

Japan attacking midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake says the intensity at the summit of Asian Zone Group B is evidence of rapidly developing standards across the world’s most populous continent. “It will not be easy to go through this final round of qualifiers, because without a doubt the level of Asian football is rising,” Kiyotake told FIFA.com. “And I also feel the presence of big pressure put upon the Japan national team during qualifiers.”

Saitama Stadium on the outskirts of Tokyo, with its relentless distinctly Japan-flavoured cacophony of noise, has normally been a fortress for Samurai Blue. But Japan’s intimidating record at their regular home has been dented during the current World Cup cycle, with a draw against modest Singapore and a crucial defeat UAE among the low points for new coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

I also feel the presence of big pressure put upon the Japan national team during qualifiers.

Japan midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake

Kiyotake, however, says the current crop of players is among the most experienced Japan have ever had. After seven years in the national team, and nine years on from his international bow at youth level, Kiyotake is worldly enough to make that judgment.

“The Japan national team currently has the biggest number of players playing abroad compared to recent years,” says Kiyotake. “Including J-League players, there are many players with good skill and, at the same time, having good self-management.”

Japan’s Class of 2010 returned from the World Cup in South Africa as their nation’s first to progress to the knockout stage on foreign soil. Twelve months later Kiyotake was part of the Samurai Blue environment for the first time, and though he only featured for a handful of minutes at Brazil 2014, he is now an increasingly key component of the side.

But how has the national team changed since he first joined the team? “It is difficult to answer because the coach has changed and players have changed as well,” said Kiyotake. “But I can say that the individual skill of players has improved. And I also feel that the players are more thoughtful showing well thought-out play. The environment of the team helps me to play, because there are still many players who I know from the beginning.”

Japan’s new wave
Kiyotake has been part of the modern breed of Japan players with an increasing presence in European club football over the past decade, most notably in Germany and England. The Oita-raised Kiyotake has just returned to newly-promoted J-League side Cerezo Osaka after a brief unsettled spell at Sevilla, which followed on from four strong campaigns with firstly Nuremberg, and then Hannover.

Kiyotake says it has helped him develop both on and off the field, an experience undoubtedly shared by the numerous national team colleagues based in the Old Continent: “I have definitely grown as a player with the experiences I’ve had in Germany and Spain. I also strongly feel that I have also grown as a person, because daily life presents different ways of thinking in comparison to Japan.”

Kiyotake believes the team ethic of Japanese players is among their most prized attributes. “The Japanese player will respect both individual and collective discipline, and also has flexibility during the game,” he said. “They have good technique and quick decision taking.

“Personally I think that I have to continue improving and learning to be able to show the good characteristics of the Japanese player, and combine that to the team I’m playing for. That thinking allows me to keep myself challenging and playing positively.”