- Win sees Japan sharing top spot in Group H
- Samurai Blue playing with a new style compared to four years ago
- Club World Cup experience coming in handy for Gen Shoji
By Hidetoshi Suzuki with Japan
Having picked up an opening victory over Colombia, Japan find themselves sitting pretty alongside Senegal at the top of Group H. The 2-1 win marked a bright start for the Samurai Blue in Russia, sporting a completely different style compared to the team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
In his first competitive game in charge, coach Akira Nishino was unsurprisingly buoyed by the way they have kicked off the tournament. “We finished the first match with the best possible result, which I think now hands us a good advantage."
That victory, courtesy of a Shinji Kagawa penalty and Yuya Osako header, was achieved with “hard work”, “experience” and, perhaps most importantly, “endurance in defence”. Adopting a 4-2-3-1 formation which mimicked their South American opponents, what came as a surprise to many was seeing Gen Shoji start in the centre of defence.
Winning his 13th cap for the national team, and making his World Cup debut, having picked up an injury in their final warm-up friendly with Paraguay just a week ago he was impressively back at his peak yesterday. “Even after conceding Colombia’s equaliser, we didn’t panic,” Shoji told FIFA.com. “I was able to cope with ten men with ease,” he added, after Carlos Sanchez was dismissed inside three minutes.
Having appeared at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016 as a member of J. League Champions Kashima Antlers, who went on to run Real Madrid close in the final, he has big game experience. “While this may be my first World Cup, the atmosphere in the stadium feels very similar to the one during Club World Cup matches,” he told the Japanese press.
This wasn’t his first crossing with this South American brand of football, either, having seen off Copa Libertadores and Colombian giants Atletico Nacional in the semi-final. Coming under intense pressure that day, facing eleven men that time as well, that experience will no doubt have been key in helping Japan’s No3 keep Los Cafeteros frontman Falcao remarkably quiet in Saransk.
Next up is Senegal on 24 June in a crucial battle to take hold of the group. “We will focus on showing our strength in the next match”, Nishino concluded. However, undoubtedly their greatest strength is the endurance they already displayed against Colombia.