Belgium vs Japan Preview: Roberto Martínez's men eye safe passage to last eight

Belgium vs Japan Preview: Roberto Martínez's men eye safe passage to last eight

The Red Devils have earned perhaps the most favourable lot of the round against the Samurai Blue, who scraped through Group H.

dave-comerford
David Comerford

Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard & Co. will be looking to lead Belgium to just the third World Cup quarter-final in their history when they take on Group H runners-up Japan in Rostov-on-Don on Monday evening. 

The Belgians, who beat England last time out, will be overwhelming favourites, but Japan will be looking to spring a surprise perhaps on the same level as Germany's group-stage elimination after defying the odds to qualify from the hotly-contested Group H.

Nearly 10,000 kilometres separate Brussels and Tokyo but the two sides should remember each other vividly, having faced off in a friendly as recently as November. Belgium ran out 1-0 winners that day thanks to Romelu Lukaku's second-half winner. 

Three wins from three so far for bonding Belgians

Prior to the tournament, the chief concern surrounding this top-drawer Belgian squad was whether they would field 11 talented individuals in Russia or a genuine team. 

Beaten in the quarter-finals at their last two major tournaments, first by Argentina in Brazil and then by Wales at the European Championships, the 'golden generation' had failed to convert their boundless promise into anything meaningful. Add into the equation the all-too-public grumblings of star player De Bruyne, and the various doubts begin to overpower the optimism.

The Belgians' performance against minnows Panama in their opener did not quite allay these concerns. A disjointed first-half performance was followed by a more ruthless second 45, with Dries Mertens's magnificent volley and Lukaku's subsequent brace securing the three points.

However, Roberto Martínez's side really got going on Matchday Two with a free-flowing attacking masterclass. Hazard's sixth-minute penalty set the rout in motion, with Belgium virtually out of sight by the break as they relentlessly sliced through Tunisia's defence. The game finished 5-2, but it was even more one-sided than that scoreline suggests.

Progression, then, had already been sealed ahead of a more representative test against an invigorated England side, allowing Martinez to ring the changes. Gareth Southgate responded in kind, and in the battle of the second-string elevens, it was Belgium who ran out deserved winners thanks to Adnan Januzaj's curling effort. Maximum points were in the bag, and the batteries of the big guns had been recharged. 

 

Team news: Belgium should be back to full strength

Thibaut Courtois has started every game at the tournament and will continue between the sticks. Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco will be expected to slot-in the wing-back roles, but it's unclear which back three Martínez will select. He has Dedryck Boyata, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Leander Dendoncker and the returning duo of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen to choose from.

Assuming the manager retains the same shape, it will be Axel Witsel or Moussa Dembélé in the middle of the park along with talisman De Bruyne, while the attacking trio of Mertens, Hazard and Lukaku will look run riot - they already have seven goals between them at this year's finals. 

Japan face huge task after sneaking into knockouts

The vast majority of those predicting Group H would have had the Japanese sitting in a distant fourth place after the dismissal of manager Vahid Halilhodžić just two months before the tournament, leaving the squad in apparent disarray.

However, when Carlos Sánchez was sent off for handball in the early minutes of their opener against ColombiaAkira Nishino’s men saw an opportunity to cause an upset which they gratefully seized. Yuya Osako's winner got them the three points, and they added another to their tally in match two as they twice pegged back Senegal, with Takashi Inui instrumental.

It was very finely-poised heading into the final round games, and while Japan fell to a 1-0 defeat against an uninspiring Poland, Yerry Mina's goal for Colombia against Senegal was enough to send them through not on points, not on goal difference, not even on goals scored, but on their superior disciplinary record. Their clash with Poland ended with a farcical truce as they nonchalantly knocked the ball around and ran down the clock, but who could blame them in such extraordinary circumstances?

 

 

Team news: Inui the danger man

Nishino took a quite remarkable risk by making sweeping changes against Poland but will call upon his key men as he looks to claim a historic scalp.

Japan will likely be reliant on goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to produce some more magic after his sensational save to deny Kamil Grosicki last time out.

Other important players include Southampton's experienced centre-back Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Osako, who should edge the battle with Shinji Okazaki for the role up front.

Many, though, have identified Inui, who has caught the eye so far with a goal and assist, as an individual who could really ruffle Belgian feathers. 

What awaits the winners?

Belgium should, ultimately, have little trouble progressing against the spirited Japanese, but thereafter they might well face the almighty task of defeating tournament favourites Brazil, provided the five-time champions overcome Germany's conquerors Mexico earlier on Monday. 

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