Socceroos get the chance to make a massive statement

Australia have a golden opportunity to inflict a savage psychological blow on Japanese football when they take on the Samurai Blue in a crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier.


Tom Rogic is surrounded by Japanese players when the two teams drew 1-1 in October 2016 Source: AAP

The Socceroos need to emerge unscathed from their clash in Saitama on August 31 as the race for a spot in the finals approaches its climax.

With two rounds to go and the top two teams from Group B to go through to Russia automatically, Japan lead Australia and Saudi Arabia by one point.

A draw should be enough for the Australians to secure direct qualification for the finals, bearing in mind that they play modest Thailand in Melbourne in the group's final match on September 5, a few hours before the Saudis entertain the Japanese in Jeddah.

If Ange Postecoglou's Asian champions win on Japan's home turf - at the ground that hosted a semi-final of the 2002 World Cup - they would make a huge statement.

It is not so long ago that the Japanese were seen as the leading football country in Asia, dominating the national and club scene with a type of exciting and polished football rarely seen on the continent.

Yet it would appear that the wheels have somewhat fallen off the Japanese game at both levels.

It's been nine years since a Japanese club won the AFC Champions League or even reached the final and with China emerging as a major force in Asia it might take a little longer for a J.League side to prevail again.

The national team have become rather 'beatable' the last few years as they showed at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup - losing on penalties to the United Arab Emirates in the quarter-finals.

Vahid Halilhodzic's team have often laboured for points even against the lesser fry instead of winning them with ease and panache as they used to do only a few years ago.

The gifted players are still there - no country in Asia has more players earning their living in Europe - but when it comes to gelling into a national team the weaknesses start to appear. And they are not necessarily of a technical nature.

Perhaps the national team would be better served by a Japanese coach who fully understands the players' mentality than by the foreign mentors who tried to turn Japan into something they were not.

The same thing may have happened to Brazil when they tried to 'Europeanise' their game in the late 1970s and late 1980s in order to be more competitive but in doing so they lost their natural flair and exuberance.

It also could be that Asia is catching up on Japan but the fact remains that if the Australians strike a knockout blow in Saitama they would strengthen their position as top dogs in the region and serve notice to the rest of the continent that Japan are in decline.
A swallow does not make a summer and a one-off game is probably not the best method to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of two leading football countries in Asia.

Yet there is no doubt that if the Socceroos grab the three points from a fixture that has always been close, perceptions about the relative worth of Australian and particularly Japanese football could change dramatically.

There is no doubt that the pressure is on for the Australians, who would just about kiss their direct qualification hopes goodbye if they returned home pointless.

But my feeling is that the Japanese might be under more intense pressure because they know what the Socceroos team are capable of when they are on their game - as they were in the 1-1 draw with Chile at the FIFA Confederations Cup two months ago - and must realise that Postecoglou's team are probably more settled and organised.

Japan do not usually relish Australia's physicality and even stronger temperament and for this reason games between the two countries with such differing playing styles and mentalities are always tight with no quarter asked or given.

It should be the same again in Saitama but this time, especially if Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy are fit and firing, I reckon Japan are there for the taking.

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4 min read
Published 15 August 2017 at 3:05pm
By Philip Micallef