Despite emerging victorious in 11 consecutive World Cup Qualifiers, a Socceroos victory against Japan on Tuesday night would be sweeter than any in recent memory.
Historically, this clash was the ultimate test of quality in Asia – an even battle between the grit and determination of Australia and the poise and control of the Blue Samurai.
It was strength vs technicality, counter-attack vs possession, 26 million vs 126 million, Tim Cahill vs Hidetoshi Nakata – in many respects the countries were the antithesis of each other, making clashes between the Asian giants enthralling for all supporters.
However, in recent years, what used to be a clash of the titans has transformed into a David vs Goliath sort of encounter with the Socceroos having failed to defeat the Samurai Blue since doing so on home soil in 2009.
Tuesday night’s encounter represents Australia’s biggest opportunity to set the record straight and to demonstrate that the Socceroos mean business in Asia.
A win would see Graham Arnold’s men record a 12th consecutive victory in World Cup Qualifying but it would also see Australia leapfrog Japan in the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in three years.
Much has changed since over 74,000 people watched the Socceroos’ final match in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup over Japan at the MCG in 2009. Legends of both countries have retired, while Japan’s Yuto Nagatomo and Eiji Kawashima remain the only players to feature for either country since the Socceroos’ historic victory.
In 2021, Japanese football is thriving. The J-League 1 is the best league in Asia while all but five of Japan’s 25-man squad for Tuesday’s match are plying their trade in Europe – some of whom are playing frequently for European powerhouses Arsenal, Celtic and Liverpool.
The way in which Japan have seamlessly replaced national team legends Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa is to be commended as the country’s August 2021 World Ranking of 24 represented their highest rank since 2012 – a huge achievement after falling as low as 60th midway through 2018.
On the flip side, 2020 was considered by many to be one of the worst years in memory for Australian football. Dwindling attendances and an uncertain future for the A-League combined with the increasing lack of Australians playing regularly in Europe’s top leagues made for dire reading.
The contrasting state of both countries’ footballing endeavours during the pandemic was an almost perfect encapsulation of the two countries’ juxtaposing football fortunes over the past 12 years with the Samurai Blue featuring twice in World Cup knockout stages while this feat has still evaded the Socceroos since 2006.
Yet despite all the turmoil that has pervaded Australian football since that fateful day in 2009, the Socceroos are well placed to qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup while Japan have lost two of their first three matches in the 3rd round of qualifying, thus mounting pressure on Head Coach Hajime Moriyasu who is expected to perform better with one of Japan’s most talented groups of players in recent memory.
For Graham Arnold, Tuesday night represents the perfect opportunity to expose Japan while they continue to flounder despite their individual quality. Youthful exuberance has come to the fore for Arnold’s men of late with the likes of Riley McGree and Harry Souttar continuing their dazzling form after the Olympics.
The latter has been linked with a move away from Stoke City after some impressive performances in the Championship this season. The giant centre-half is expected to set back Premier League clubs as much as £30m ($56m) for his services – a fee which would dwarf Aaron Mooy’s record fee for an Australian after he moved from Manchester City to Huddersfield Town for £12m ($20m) in 2017.
Higher up the pitch, Ajdin Hrustić and Jackson Irvine continue to impress for Eintracht Frankfurt and FC St Pauli in Germany and will likely be the two players tasked with going head to head at the base of midfield with Japan’s Wataru Endo and Gaku Shibasaki.
Despite the Socceroos’ rare streak of results, many fans maintain a sense of apathy towards the team’s Australian manager Graham Arnold.
Many still feel the wounds of a disappointing quarter-final exit in Australia’s Asian Cup defence of 2019 while others point to Arnold’s suspect tournament management at the Tokyo Olympics where the team lost several key players due to accumulation of bookings, thus underwhelming many hopeful fans who expected the team to feature in the knockout stage after having defeated Argentina in the team’s unforgettable opening victory.
Other detractors cite the quality of opposition faced by the Socceroos over their last 11 matches as evidence to not get too excited over Arnold or the quality of his team. However, avid followers of the Socceroos will be aware that qualifying for the World Cup through Asia is never easy.
Not even current Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou could guarantee automatic qualification for the national team in 2017 after dropping points to inferior opposition in Thailand and Iraq. Japan’s recent loss against Oman equally serves to prove that any off day in Asia can be punished by ruthless opposition.
While many who trivialise the quality of the Socceroos with Arnold at the helm are undoubtedly driven by footballing tribalism after the manager’s success at Sydney FC, others’ opinions could be swayed by a groundbreaking win in Saitama on Tuesday.
A scalp as large as a footballing powerhouse like Japan could all but solidify Arnold’s respect among Australia’s footballing public while equally placing Australia in the box seat to qualify for a 5th consecutive FIFA World Cup.
For the Samurai Blue, a win on home soil would be the perfect way of altering their form slump of late while also ensuring that they remain within touching distance of Australia for an automatic qualification spot to next year’s World Cup.
One thing remains certain, however, what has been a David vs Goliath encounter for the last 12 years now seems to be rooted in the same respect and competitiveness with which the Japan vs Australia rivalry was created.
Image Credit: Football Australia