Japan could be through into the last 16 but they remain the rank outsiders to win the tournament and it might be a huge upset if they beat Belgium here. The Red Devils will expect to progress to the past eight plus it might only be then when we get a real idea of if Belgium are genuine contenders or are going to come up short against the other elite groups.
On paper they’ve been very notable under Roberto Martinez, unbeaten since a friendly defeat to Spain in his very first match in charge almost two years ago. But they’ve chosen to avoid playing with the big groups from friendlies, came via a comparatively feeble qualifying group and three games to the 2018 World Cup, we are still not really any wiser as to how they’ll form up against the top sides.
Easy wins over Panama and Tunisia followed what was little more than a’B Team’ match against England that will have taught Martinez small he didn’t already know. The same could be the situation here with Belgium enormously superior on paper and also with a host of players to return into the side with new legs.
Japan’s advancement to the last sixteen was possibly the least glorious in the history of the competition. Their sole group win came from a Colombian side that performed with 10 men for 87 minutes. They ultimately progressed thanks to a superior Fair Play record to Senegal, using a farcical ending to their final game with Poland effectively seeing Japan avoid yellow cards and settle for a 1-0 defeat at the expectation that Senegal would not flat against Colombia.
It was a bet that paid off but trainer Akira Nishino can’t be proud of his side progressed and there is more than an element of irony that they made it through on Fair Play, although at precisely the same time possibly bringing the match and even the whole tournament into disrepute. You may know it to some extent but it speaks volumes that Nishino had more faith in Colombia seeing off Senegal than in his team’s chances of scoring a goal that could have guaranteed advancement against an underwhelming Poland side.
It’s difficult to make any sort of situation for Japan here. They’ve lost their last five matches against European opposition, among which was a favorable with Belgium last year. To give them a bit of credit, they played pretty well in their second group game against Senegal and played some decent football but against a side of Belgium’s quality, they are very likely to fall short in all departments.
The Belgians were the top scorers at the group stage, rattling in 9 targets and Romelu Lukaku will likely be licking his lips at the prospect of a final sixteen tie with Japan. It provides him an opportunity to move top of the Golden Boot standings along with the big striker needs to be in a position to acquire any physical tussles against the Japanese defence. With 7 goals in his past 4 internationals, financing Lukaku to score anytime stinks here.
The same goes for financing Belgium -1 Handicap. They are masters in the art of putting considerably weaker teams into the sword and prior to the non-event which was the England match, they’d won four straight matches with 3 goal margins, all against sides at the World Cup while they averaged 4.3 goals per game in qualifying, and the joint best album in Europe.
Belgium Predicted Lineup: Courtois, Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen, Carrasco, Witsel, De Bruyne, Meunier, Hazard, Mertens, Lukaku
Japan Predicted Lineup: Kawashima, Sakai, Shoji, Yoshida, Nagatomo, Hasebe, Shibasaki, Inui, Kagawa, Haraguchi, Osako
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