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Free-scoring Belgium up against Japan

  • Published at 03:20 pm July 1st, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:52 pm July 1st, 2018
Belgium assistant coach Thierry Henry and his charges during training in Russia in June Reuters

The most free-scoring team in the 2018 Fifa World Cup group stage, Belgium will aim to reach only their third quarter-final in the history of the greatest show on earth when they take on Japan, the lone Asian representative left in the tournament, at Rostov Arena in Russia Monday. The Red Devils reached the last eight in Mexico 1986, and then in the last edition in Brazil 2014.

In contrast, Japan are playing in the knockout stage for the first time since South Africa 2010.

Belgium strolled through their Group G games, scoring three and five against Panama and Tunisia respectively in the first two matches. They then beat England with a second-string team, thanks to a brilliant individual goal by Adnan Januzaj, although the Three Lions made eight changes themselves. The win saw Belgium continue their 22-match unbeaten run – the longest in their history – and reflected the class and depth of this hugely-talented side.

Manager Roberto Martinez stayed true to his promise, resting nine regulars against England. So a fresh Red Devils side are expected to attack from the word go against the Japanese. In the last World Cup in Brazil, Belgium needed 120 minutes to get past USA in the Round of 16 in Salvador on July 1. This time around, they’ll surely be looking to seal a quarter-final berth in normal time. 

On the eve of the clash, Paris Saint Germain defender Thomas Meunier talked about his team-mate Romelu Lukaku, who has already scored a pair of braces in two matches before sitting out the England tie: "Being the best Belgian goalscorer in history and having such an importance at Manchester United at only 25 is just impressive. His stats speak for themselves."

On the other hand, it was fair-play points which took Japan to the knockout stage. Many of their players play for prominent clubs in Germany, Spain, England, France, Turkey and Mexico. Even their goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima currently plays for Metz in France, and had previously featured for Lierse SK and Standard de Liege in the Belgian top-flight league.

This Japan squad has vast experience. Provided they play the Belgium game, Kawashima, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Okazaki will be taking part in their 11th World Cup match, which will be a national record for Japan. 

Japan used a 4-4-2 formation in their last Group H match against Poland, and lost 1-0. Manager Akira Nishino is likely to revert to the 4-2-3-1 system that he deployed in the win over Colombia and the draw with Senegal.

The Samurai will largely depend on attacking midfielders Genki Haraguchi, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui. Nishino will probably bring back his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation that proved to be successful in the win over Colombia and the draw against Senegal. The Japanese will target attacking through the wings where Gaku Shibasaki will play a vital role.

“We would like to play passing football, and to dominate the game. My image of Belgium is their three full-backs and two defensive midfielders, and two very attacking wingers. I think there should be space for us behind the wings, or somewhere in that general area,” said Inui after Saturday's training session.

Belgium have a good record against the Asian teams in the World Cup. In six matches so far, the Red Devils have won three of them, drawn twice and lost only once.

Both the teams had faced each other just seven months ago in a friendly in Bruges as part of their World Cup preparation. On that occasion, a lone Lukaku strike took Belgium home. 

This time around, both the teams will be aware of their disciplinary record as a booking will see many players miss out on the quarters. 

Meunier, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin de Bruyne, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker have a booking against their name while Kawashima, Hasebe, Tomoaki Makino and Inui are a yellow card away from missing the last eight.

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