Who? Belgium - Japan
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? July 2, 20:00 (CET local time)
Belgium (Omri Tancman)
The current Belgian generation is considered as one of its finest ever. However, in their last two big tournaments the Belgians haven’t managed to progress as much as they wanted. In Brazil in 2014 and in France in 2016 they didn’t succeed to go beyond the quarter finals. When looking at the first teams Belgium presented and comparing it to their first team in Russia 2018 one of the main changes is the inclusion of Dries Mertens in the starting eleven.
Mertens, Napoli’s sneaky striker made a long way until he became a consensus in the Belgian squad. Unlike some of Belgium’s former wonderkids like Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne, Mertens had to scrape his way to the top slowly but surely. For example, due to his small size and physical attributes, Mertens was released from Anderlecht’s youth team when he was 16. However, Mertens did not quit and battled to play professional football. His character and his desire to prove that he can be worthy for any team led him finally to a couple of extraordinary seasons with Napoli. In fact, it seems that the character of Mertens and the fighting ethos of Napoli are a match meant to be.
These mental attributes are something that the Belgian national team can benefit from. One of the popular opinions regarding the Belgian national team is that although they have an abundance of talent, sometimes they lack character and grit. The inclusion of Mertens in the first team, differently than in the last two big tournaments can help Belgium to achieve the expected glory they wish to obtain with this generation so much. A win against Japan can be a great step on this path.
Japan (Yossi Medina)
The continental honour is on Japan. The last Asian team left in the World Cup doesn't want to finish their journey in Russia. The Blue Samurais want to be the third Asian team to play in the quarterfinals, after North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002. In order to do that, they must give their best against Belgium.
Japan can't forget their previous World Cup match against Belgium back in 2002. At their opening match in front of the home crowd, the Japanese managed to finish the game with 2:2 by goals of Takayuki Suzuki and Junichi Inamoto. In that World Cup Japan reached the round of 16 and lost to Turkey in their last match.
Even though Japan made it through the group stage, everyone talked about their controversial finish. Japan lost its last match against Poland and qualified after using the fair play tiebreaker. They were ranked above Senegal only because they got two yellow cards less. Many have doubted if they are really better than Senegal, but now it's all history, as Japan is preparing for their match.
This game can be a milestone day for two player. The first is Shinji Okazaki that may play his 117th international game, which will place him as the third most capped player of Japan. Another milestone can be reached by Keisuke Honda, as his next cap will be his 98th international match and he will be tied as the eighth most capped player alongside with Shunsuke Nakamura.
With all this tradition, history and faith, Japan is ready to bring history not only to their country, but to Asia. Akira Nishino knows well that it's might be difficult, but Japan proved that they can play well against stronger teams. Will it be the case also tonight?