Though a sweep of its Group G opponents gave Belgium a potentially easier round-of-16 match versus Japan at Rostov-on-Don on Monday, a victory would provide a challenging gauntlet to traverse for the Red Devils thereafter at the World Cup.
Much was made over whether Belgium or England would actively seek to win their group finale against the other considering both teams were through and level on points, goal difference and goals scored. Once more, the possibility of the FIFA fair play points tiebreaker being used was in play, the same method that saw Japan reach this contest at Senegal’s expense from Group H.
In a not-so-dead rubber in which 17 of the 22 players from both starting lineups were first-time starters in Russia, Adnan Januzaj’s moment of quality on a 51st-minute strike separated the two sides as Belgium recorded a 1-0 victory and claimed group honors.
Though this appears to be an easier match, the rest of Belgium’s half of the draw features World Cup champions in its path to the finals, with five-time champion Brazil a potential quarterfinal opponent and either 1998 champion France or two-time winner Uruguay in the semifinal.
It is the fifth time the Red Devils are in the knockout round in their last six appearances as they look to at least match their quarterfinal showing from four years ago in Brazil. That was just their second appearance in club history in the round of eight, with the other coming as part of their fourth-place finish in 1986 that remains their high-water mark.
After being rested against England, Romelu Lukaku resumes his chase of the Golden Boot as he enters this contest with four goals, tied for second with since-eliminated Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and one back of England’s Harry Kane. Eden Hazard has added a pair of markers for Belgium, which has found the back of the net nine times overall in Russia.
Japan gave new meaning to scraping by into the knockout round as FIFA’s seventh of eight tiebreakers allowed it passage to the round of 16. The Samurai Blue controlled their destiny heading into their final match against Poland, but after conceding a second-half goal and getting updates how things were unfolding between Senegal and Colombia, Japan manager Akira Nishino made the curious and risky decision not to go forward looking for an equalizer in the final 10 minutes knowing they held the fair play rules tiebreaker.
That was on top of the questionable overturning of his roster for the match in which he made six changes and held out top players Makoto Hasebe, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui. The two moves in combination almost backfired late as Poland came close to scoring on two occasions, including once on an own goal, but the 1-0 loss and its disciplined play proved to be enough to let Samurai Blue make their third appearance in the round of 16 in club history.
Japan’s previous forays into the knockout round have ended with its fourth match. The Samurai Blue have never scored in this round, getting eliminated by Turkey 1-0 as co-hosts in 2002 and on penalties by Paraguay in 2010.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
June 19 — Japan 2, Colombia 1 (Kagawa 6′ (PK), Quintero 39′, Osako 73′)
June 24 — Japan 2, Senegal 2 (Mane 11′, Inui 34′, Wague 71′, Honda 78′)
June 28 — Japan 0, Poland 1 (Bednarek 59′)
After making nine changes to his side for the England match, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez is expected to restore all nine players. The lone outfield holdover, central defender Dedryck Boyata, could be replaced by talisman Vincent Kompany after the Manchester City star had a 20-minute cameo for his first action of the World Cup since suffering a groin injury in the run-up to the tournament.
It is expected to be a similar story for Japan with Nishino likely using the same starting XI that fared so well against Senegal despite the 2-2 scoreline. The duo of Inui and Yuya Osako have been very effective in attack for Samurai Blue, with Inui’s pace on the left often allowing him chances to skip inside and create problems in and around the penalty area.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
The chances of Kompany actually replacing Boyata in the lineup are less than 50/50 as there is a difference between being healthy and match-fit. Kompany may be the former, but he is definitely not the latter after just 20 minutes of a match that mattered little. Of the five players on a yellow card for Belgium, three — Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Jan Vertonghen — are starters.
Japan appears to have everyone available for selection and has four players carrying a booking into this match — Inui, Hasebe, Tomoaki Makino and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Belgium — Kevin De Bruyne (MF)
While he does not have a goal and has assisted on just one of Belgium’s eight goals in the run of play, De Bruyne is still the master string-puller of the offense. The Manchester City maestro is the link to Lukaku and Hazard and capable of drawing the midfield to him to create space for the pair in front of opposing back lines.
Japan — Keisuke Honda (MF)
He has played just 38 minutes in Japan’s first two minutes, but the 32-year-old Pachuca midfielder has made a devastating impact in both matches. He scored the winner against Colombia and assisted on the equalizer versus Senegal before being curiously held out against Poland. Honda is the only Asian player to have a goal and an assist in each of the last three World Cups and is tied for fourth on Japan’s all-time list with 37 goals.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
2002 (Japan/South Korea) Japan 2, Belgium 2 (Wilmots 57′, Suzuki 59′, Inamoto 67′, Van Der Heyden 75′)
The teams are meeting for the second time in the World Cup, as the 2-2 draw when Japan was a co-host helped both teams progress to the round of 16. The teams met in a friendly last November in Bruges, with Lukaku’s goal in the 72nd minute separating the sides in a 1-0 Belgium victory.
That is the lone victory for the Red Devils in five all-time matches versus Japan, losing two and drawing two.
Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a resounding favorite with 2/5 odds, and Japan is the longest of longshots of the remaining matches in this round at 8/1. The odds of a draw and the match going to penalty kicks is 10/3.
The first 10 options for the first goal-scorer are all Belgians, with Lukaku the frontrunner at 14/5 odds. Batshuayi is a surprising second at 16/5, while Eden Hazard is 7/2 and Dries Mertens 5/1. Osako is Japan’s best bet at 10/1 odds, followed by key reserves Honda and Shinji Okazaki at 11/1.
For the second straight World Cup, Belgium has swept through group play, and there are some parallels to this match from its round of 16 contest against the United States four years ago. Like four years ago, the Red Devils have a chance to put up overwhelming statistical advantages in this match like they did versus the Yanks in which they totaled an eye-watering 38 shots. Sixteen of them were on target as Belgium needed both De Bruyne and Lukaku to score in extra time in a 2-1 victory.
Japan has similar industry and doggedness, but it lacks the technical precision defensively on set pieces in which De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku and even Mertens can feast on in this match. Samurai Blue do have some offensive skill going forward, and Inui can give Thomas Meunier and Toby Alderweireld some fits on the left side, but he will need plenty of help from Kagawa if they are to spring a monumental upset.
Martinez can talk all he wants about how the win over England built confidence, but it was little more than a prestige victory that will look good in the history books as time moves forward. Belgium has walked the walk thus far in Russia, and while Japan is easily a cut above Panama and Tunisia, it is still not at a level where it can touch the Red Devils.
PREDICTION: Belgium 4, Japan 1.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Brazil-Mexico match in the quarterfinals July 6 in Kazan.