Japan’s entire 2018 World Cup cycle was something of a bitter complaint. Yes, the Samurai Blue qualified for a sixth straight tournament, but manager Vahid Halilhodzic was fired ten weeks before the finals for doing things like losing to the UAE and drawing with Iraq. To begin World Cup play, Japan recorded a 2-1 win over Colombia but somehow managed to look second-best despite playing 87 minutes with a man advantage.
The 2-2 draw with Senegal showed great spirit — Japan twice coming back from a goal down — but that "great spirit" was then widely ridiculed in a 1-0 defeat to Poland to end group play. Japan advanced to the Round of 16 on the dubious FIFA Fair Play points tiebreaker, but there was something entirely ironic about Japan using that rule to advance despite passing the ball around the halfway line to preserve a one-goal defeat.
I say this because, my word, Japan was the best team I’ve seen at the 2018 World Cup for a four-minute spell today. They were also exceptional throughout the opening 45, but beginning with Genki Haraguchi’s goal in the 48th minute, the Samurai Blue looked like World Cup favorites.
Here’s Haraguchi with the finish after some nifty footwork in the box.
Four minutes later, Takashi Inui doubled Japan’s lead after some good play from Shinji Kagawa. This finish is just unreal.
Belgium, the world’s third-ranked side, were well and truly shook. Off went Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco, on came Nacer Chadli and the tree known as Marouane Fellaini. And it worked.
Jan Vertonghen sent a freak, looping header over Eiji Kawashima and that was quickly followed by a goal from the tree.
The Japanese joy was utterly destroyed when Chadli buried the game-winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time (the ref had given four). Some pretty good substitutions from Roberto Martinez.
What a devastating counter from Belgium, but what a time to get caught out by a devastating counter! To be fair to Japan, I think it was over when the two-goal cushion was wasted, and I think they knew that…they weren’t about to do this in extra time.