Japan clear challenging hurdles on road to Russia

The record books will show Japan reached a sixth successive FIFA World Cup™ with a match to spare, after a 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama on Thursday guaranteed top spot in Asia’s Group B qualifying for Russia 2018.

But is has been an at times tumultuous campaign with some varied results under Vahid Halilhodzic, with the Bosnian coach appointed just three months prior to the campaign in the wake of Japan’s disappointing 2015 AFC Asian Cup defence. Indeed, such were the tight margins at the top of the group, failure to defeat Australia on Thursday would have left Japan facing a challenging winner-takes-all match in Saudi Arabia next week.

FIFA.com runs the rule over the highs and lows of Japan’s success in becoming the world’s third team to join hosts Russia 2018, following Brazil and Iran.

How they did it Halilhodzic’s World Cup tenure with the east Asians opened in muted fashion with a disappointing scoreless draw at home to humble Singapore. Japan, though, found their rhythm by winning all seven of their remaining Round 2 fixtures without conceding a goal. In the following round, once again Japan opened with a poor result at Saitama – this time a 2-1 defeat against United Arab Emirates. There were 1-1 draws on the road against Australia and Iraq, but six wins from nine outings proved enough.

Players As was the case with Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, Halilhodzic was not afraid to rotate players and leave out big names. The team’s three leading goalscorers during Russia 2018 qualifying - Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda - were all omitted for the decisive match against Australia.

Newer names that grabbed a share of the spotlight were five-goal forward Genki Haraguchi and fellow attacker Yuya Kubo, while veteran captain Makoto Hasebe and Maya Yoshida remain cornerstones of the team.

Yosuke Ideguchi speaks about his surprise inclusion in the starting 11 and that marvellous goal... #WCQ2018 #RoadToRussia pic.twitter.com/uMqdn1TeyY

— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) September 1, 2017

The stats Halilhodzic brought a level of pragmatism to Japan’s natural free-flowing game as evidenced by their goal return. Leaving aside 4-0 and 2-0 wins over Thailand, Japan accrued just 11 goals in seven Round 3 matches. They did, however, end a hoodoo of sorts with victory over Australia on Thursday their first in eight World Cup or qualifying matches against the Socceroos dating back to 1969.

The quote “No player’s place in the team is assured. If you look at that in a positive way, it means everyone has a chance.” Japan captain Makoto Hasebe

The big stage With a run stretching back to France 1998 and a sixth successive World Cup assured, Japan are behind only a select group of nations in terms of unbroken appearances at the tournament. Their aim will be to better a Round of 16 appearances achieved in 2002, and again in 2010 where it took a penalty shoot-out for Paraguay to eliminate Japan.