If only there were points for sheer bravado and pure footballing performances. Alas, there are not, and Japan have come second-best in a football match for the ages under the lights in Rostov.
Belgium will rightly be praised for their indelible spirit in coming back from two goals down to clinch a memorable victory and it will give them an electric morale-boost ahead of a tasty encounter with Brazil.
Yet, let us take a few moments to eulogize the Samurai Blue, who were mesmerizing at times today. Although South Korea reached the semis in '02, I don't remember, in pure performance terms, many better Asian displays than what Hasebe & co. showed today (maybe, North Korea in '66 against a Eusebio-led Portugal is the only one that comes close).
#5 - Hasebe's Exemplary Leadership
“The only true captains I have ever worked with are Paolo Maldini and Hasebe”, quipped the ex Japanese national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni when talking about this guy. Not bad company to be mentioned in, eh?
To be fair, today Makoto Hasebe showed why he has garnered such glowing praise. Yes, even in a game glittered by the likes of Inui, Kagawa, and Haraguchi, it was the veteran Japanese skipper who was the true fulcrum of this very special Japanese performance. For a team to switch between attack and defense as seamlessly as Japan were able to do, you need an extremely-skilled pivot. With his surgical tackles, key interceptions, and nerveless passing, Hasebe, in what is very likely his last World Cup game, showed us why he is exactly that.
He perhaps deserves to be right up there in the conversation of the greatest Asian midfielders of all time.
#4 - A Newfound Physicality
Coming into the tournament, very few doubted the technical ability of the Japanese – what was glaring, however, was their tendency to be outmuscled by the more physical teams. Their inability to compete with the fitness and raw strength of European, South American, and African teams was predicted to be their undoing yet again.
In this World Cup, though, Japan unearthed the brawn to match their panache. We sensed reverberations of this newfound physicality against Colombia and Senegal but, today, they clocked into a higher gear against a team bursting at the seams with athletic brilliance.
Whether it was through their hunter-like tracking of the Belgian wide-players, or through them holding their own in shoulder-to-shoulder tussles against players much more imposing than them, or through their lung-busting runs forward to flood the Belgian defence, Japan has showed that you don’t necessarily need to be the biggest lads on the pitch to outgun your opponents, and that you can get very far with focused diligence topped with a whole lot of heart.
#3 - Defending On The Front Foot
Japan very nearly took the game away from Belgium. A large part of the credit has to go to Japan’s defensive game.
Japan’s defending style was very different, you would have noticed, from Russia’s own (even more) impressive defense. Where Russia cemented two banks of defenders in front of Akinfeev, Japan, remarkably, chose to press high up.
Liverpool fans would have noticed shades of Jurgen Klopp’s iconic gegenpressing in the way the Japanese front four arrowed into the Belgian defensive line every time they tried to play the ball out from the back. Yuya Osako, and Shinji Kagawa took turns in leading a relentless Japanese counter-press much like Firmino did week in week out at Anfield last season.
Right from the first phase of the game, Kompany, Vertonghen, and, especially, Courtois seemed to be seriously caught off-guard with the relentlessness of Japan’s pressing. They were expecting to have comfortable time and space on the ball. Japan did not give them both.
#2 - Composure, Composure, Composure
We’ve had a lot of great underdog stories in this World Cup already and, enjoyable as it has been, it has to be admitted that anyone rooting for them has had to endure panic attacks from nervous clearances, last-ditch challenges, and ghastly mistakes that somehow were not punished.
Amazingly, Japan inflicted very little such panic on their supporters. Such was the icy nervelessness displayed by the Japanese players for most of the game that there were moments where De Bruyne and Witsel appeared bewildered that their considerable pressure on the Japanese midfielders resulted in nothing more than a slick pass to another blue shirt.
Kagawa and Hasebe, in particular, were magnificent in the way they got out of tricky situations with a precise pass to a teammate who, it appeared to everyone else, was out of range. We have seen Japan play such silky football in the Asian Cup, where they are expected to have large swathes of possession, but this was different – this was in a World Cup knockout game against one of the favourites.
#1 - Unerring Fearlessness
How often have we fidgeted slightly in frustration as a team sits back when they get the lead? Refreshing, indeed, it was, then, to see that unfancied Japan, with two clear goals in their back pocket, were still marauding on Courtois’ goal hungry for more.
Especially in that rip-snorter of a second-half, Japan’s front line was thoroughly unfazed by the illustrious names keeping guard in front of Courtois. More than a handful of times, Japan cut open the Belgian defence and were clinical in front of the net. Haraguchi’s corker of a goal was at the culmination of a ruthless counter-attack initiated by the magical Takashi Inui.
Even when Belgium was so grippingly wrestling back the game, the Samurai Blue, unfazed, still kept on going, and were not going to let the favorites just walk over them. Ultimately, it was this thirst that cost them, with the Japanese ending up chasing a scintillating Belgian counterattack reminiscent of Rooney’s goal against Bolton way back when. Yet, pushovers, Japan most certainly were not.
This is why Japan has won Asian hearts and, in my opinion, why they have just elevated Asian football. Asian teams have always had a lot of heart when they play in the World Cup (just ask North Korea in ’62, Korea Republic in ’02, or Iran this year), but what has been lacking is that bit of quality. Although we can take nothing away from the grit and pizzazz of Belgium’s performance to win the game, Japan, through their organized defending, incisive passing, devastating finishing, and ceaseless sporting spirit have announced to the world that Asian football has truly arrived.