VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA — Akira Nishino might be forgiven for pinching himself if Japan get the draw they need against eliminated Poland on Thursday to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.
Just over two months ago he wasn’t even in charge of the Blue Samurai and their most recognizable player Keisuke Honda was far from certain of being on the plane to Russia.
Now coach Nishino’s side need only a point against the Poles in Volgograd to make it to the knockout stages, thanks to a late equalizer from Honda against Senegal.
It followed the first World Cup win by an Asian country against a South American side when Japan overcame 10-man Colombia 2-1.
Even a defeat may be enough if Senegal beat Colombia, however, Japan have their fate in their own hands just months after their World Cup hopes seemed in disarray.
The Japan Football Association took a massive gamble to sack Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April following a string of poor performances and reports of friction with senior players.
But it has paid off handsomely and the doubters have been silenced by Nishino’s tightly organized Japan playing with pace, guile and no little skill to remain undefeated at the top of Group H in Russia.
Indeed, the former AC Milan and CSKA Moscow striker Honda may not have been at the World Cup at all had Halilhodzic still been in charge, so poisonous had their relationship become.
But the instantly recognizable bleach-blond, spiky-haired livewire has been born again as an impact substitute under Nishino.
Honda, who now plays for Pachuca in Mexico, became the first Japanese player to score in three World Cups after he climbed off the bench to secure the 2-2 draw in Yekaterinburg.
It was very different last August when Honda had sat glumly on the bench as Japan secured their spot in Russia with a home win against Australia.
Before leaving for Russia, the outspoken striker whose goals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa shot him to fame, took the opportunity to stick the boot into Halilhodzic.
“To submit myself to the kind of football Halilhodzic played in order to get picked, that would be shameful for me,” he told national broadcaster NHK. “I’m proud that I’ve stayed true to myself.”
Past meetings between Japan and Poland give little clue as to Thursday’s outcome at the Volgograd Arena. They have played just two friendlies with Japan winning both times, the last in 2002.
Poland skipper Robert Lewandowski urged his team to salvage some pride after a sorry World Cup campaign saw them the first European side to be eliminated.
The Poles came to Russia with high hopes of reaching the knockout phase for the first time since 1986, but a 3-0 defeat to Colombia confirmed their early exit after an opening 2-1 reverse against Senegal.
“Right now we realize we didn’t do well enough but that is something we cannot overcome,” said the prolific Bayern Munich striker on Tuesday.
Lewandowski, who has been unable to make a mark in the tournament, hinted at international retirement when he said that the Japan clash would be “for some of us… our last game for the national team.”
His strike opponent Honda, who is as famous for his bold statements as his haircuts and goals, said he would not back down from past predictions that he and Japan would lift the famous golden trophy.
“I know I promised the Japanese people we would win the World Cup,” he said before leaving for Russia.
“I have not forgotten that. Frankly that’s why I want to go to the World Cup and show how much it means to me to fight for the title.”
A win or draw on Thursday for the Blue Samurai and the 32-year-old Honda, on probably his final World Cup hurrah, can keep the dream alive. — AFP