But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Samurai Blue – especially their highly-paid coach, Valid Halilhodžić – are in the gun-sights of the locals. Lose against the Socceroos and charismatic Bosnian (who isn’t popular with his players) may not even take charge for the final match against Saudi Arabia.
There’s a feeling that the team has been lucky to top their group and the desired progress, which would see Japan advance towards the top echelon of world football, hasn’t happened.
There’s still a slew of big names in this Japanese squad, but there’s also questions about how many of them are either performing weekly at club level or how they under-perform when called up by the national team.
Amazingly, neither Shinji Kagawa or Keisuke Honda are expected to start by the local press, which shows just how far their respective stocks have fallen.
But with all that in mind, it would be utterly foolish to write off Japan, a nation that regards itself as the kings of Asian football, and who still boasts some extraordinary talent. We take a look at the five players who could cause the Socceroos problems at Saitama Stadium tonight.
1. Shinji Okazaki
Club: Leicester City (England)
Position: Attacking midfield/forward
International Career: 109 caps, 50 goals
With the club career of Honda veering sideways and the sheen coming off one-time golden boy Kagawa, it’s the other icon of Japan’s attack who is now entrenched as the national hero – not least because of his deeds with Leicester City. But for the national side, Okazaki has delivered time and time again. His record of a goal almost every second game speaks for itself, even if he doesn’t play as a out-and-out striker like he once did. He’ll probably start on the left-hand side of attack – and that could be a problem for the Socceroos, who don’t have a natural right-back in the squad. After all these years, he’s still the go-to man and as dangerous as ever. No player on either side will work harder tonight.
2. Gaku Shibasaki
Club: Getafe (Spain)
Position: Central midfield
International Career: 11 caps, 3 goals
It takes a mighty player to burst his way into the Japanese midfield – and even better one to prove himself in Spain. But Shibasaki is exactly that, showing his class in the Spanish second division (where he spent six months at Tenerife) and earning a move to newly-promoted La Liga side Getafe. Along the way, he’s edged into being a fixture in the national team. Shibasaki is a beautifully balanced player who can pick a pass and has an eye for goal – he scored two for Kashima Antlers against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final last year. He’s getting better and better every time he plays, meaning Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy won’t have it all their own way, as you might expect from a player described as the “Japanese Andres Iniesta”.
3. Makoto Hasebe
Club: Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)
Position: Defensive midfielder
International Career: 104 caps, 2 goals
If Shibasaki offers an exciting vision of the future, Hasebe is the wise old sage who keeps the team composed and balanced. He is calm, methodical and almost never misses a pass, whilst rarely letting an an attacking midfielder glide past him. The captain’s metronome-like presence is widely admired at club level, where fans of Eintracht Frankfurt regularly sing his praises and where he has remained a fixture in their rise from Bundesliga relegation-fodder to the brink of European football. He’s not much of an attacking threat (as his goal record for club and country shows) but that’s never been his job. In the heat of battle, there isn’t a better organiser in Asian football. Expect him to go to next year’s World Cup and then start to turn his attention towards a career in the dugout.
4. Maya Yoshida
Club: Southampton (England)
Position: Central defender
International Career: 75 caps, 10 goals
A towering presence in defence, one could easily plump for Inter Milan’s Yugo Nagatomo as the marquee presence of the back four. But it’s Yoshida who sets the defensive tone. He’s not the quickest nor the most mobile, but at 29, he’s learned the tricks of the world’s best strikers each week in the English Premier League. Lauded for his intelligence and composure under pressure, Yoshida has been a rock during his 75 games for the national team. You might read differently elsewhere, but Yoshida won’t be at all afraid by the prospect of Tomi Juric and Tim Cahill getting physical.
5. Keisuke Honda
Club: Pachuca (Mexico)
Position: Attacking midfielder
International Career: 90 caps, 36 goals
The Harry Kewell of Japanese football, Honda is a tantalising mix of brilliance and mystery, class and injury. He’s unlikely to start in this game, which says as much about his fall as it does about the rise in others. Having popped up in the unlikely port of Pachuca, in Mexico’s LigaMX, some will be wondering whether he’s still interested in playing at the top level or merely filling his pockets while he can. He at least scored on debut against Veracruz last week and while he’s considered unlikely to start here, it’s probable that the peroxided champion will come on at some point. Even if he departed AC Milan as something of an unfulfilled talent, he’s far too good to be discounted, especially on the big stage.