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Opinion

The Socceroos aren't Japan's biggest rival, but Arnie's men can change all that

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6 days ago
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One’s a dual under-23 and senior national team coach renowned for demanding mental toughness from his players and a stilted style of football, and the other is Graham Arnold.

Hajime Moriyasu will almost certainly be sacked as Japan coach should the Samurai Blue lose to Australia at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday night.

Even if the Asian giants manage to avoid defeat, there are still plenty in Japan who would be happy to see the back of Moriyasu.

After their latest 1-0 defeat to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, influential critic Sergio Echigo accused Moriyasu of getting his excuses in early, writing in Nikkan Sports that Moriyasu had talked about “jetlag” and “the climate” before the game.

The loss was Japan’s second since Asian qualifying resumed in September, after the Samurai Blue crashed to a shock 1-0 defeat to Oman just north of Osaka on the opening match day.

Japan conceded a late winner in that one, and they were undone by substitute Firas al-Buraikan against the Saudis, as he slalomed through on goal to nutmeg Shuichi Gonda in front of a raucous crowd in Jeddah.

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That crowd grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the full-time whistle, with Japan skipper Maya Yoshida accusing Saudi fans behind the goal of making “discriminatory gestures” during a post-match interview.

The multilingual, hugely experienced Yoshida didn’t want to take the matter further after the Saudi federation apologised after the match, but it’s a problem the Asian Football Confederation would do well stamp out as quickly as possible.

But the Japanese have problems of their own – not least the fact they’ve only scored one goal in their last three Asian qualifiers.

That was Yuya Osako’s winner in the 1-0 win over China, and while the Samurai Blue continue to fashion an avalanche of chances, questions remain over whether Osako remains the right man to finish them off.

Osako, who only recently joined Vissel Kobe after a long stint in Europe, is Japan’s most experienced striker. But with Kyogo Furuhashi and Ado Onaiwu both coming off the bench in Jeddah, Moriyasu will surely hope for more sharpness in front of goal in Saitama.

What Graham Arnold and his Socceroos side must remain wary of is the fact Japan can create chances at the drop of a hat.

They fashioned several in the defeat to Saudi Arabia and while on-loan Mallorca star Takefusa Kubo is missing through injury, it’s not like Takumi Minamino, Daichi Kamada, Takuma Asano and Junya Ito – who was suspended against the Saudis – don’t know their way towards goal.

Moriyasu, for his part, was a tough-as-nails holding midfielder for Sanfrecce Hiroshima who actually played a season with Arnold in 1997.

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He then won three J.League titles in four seasons as Hiroshima coach between 2012 and 2015, before taking charge of the national team in 2018 and collecting a runners-up medal at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Graham Arnold head coach of Australia looks on

Graham Arnold (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

But Moriyasu – whose son Keigo also spent a couple of seasons at NPL Northern NSW side Edgeworth Eagles – is under intense pressure to turn Japan’s undoubted talent into tangible results.

And it’s here Arnold holds all the cards. Not only are the Socceroos in the midst of a record-breaking 11-game winning streak, but for once the Aussies won’t run out in front of a deafening home crowd at Saitama Stadium.

I was at the corresponding fixture four years ago when Vahid Halilhodzic put on a tactical masterclass in a 2-0 win over Ange Postecoglou’s side. The Bosnian was sacked soon after.

And while ongoing COVID restrictions mean the Samurai Blue won’t enjoy their usual fanatical support, it’s not like they can be taken lightly in Saitama.

The Japanese have always viewed South Korea and China as much bigger rivals than Australia.

A win on Tuesday night – in a game that could see the unpopular Moriyasu sent packing – might help to change all that.

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*Watch the Socceroos take on Japan on 10Bold at 9:14pm (AEST) on Tuesday night.*

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