In a few hours’ time, Australian football fans will either have goofy smiles on their faces, or be starting to fret over yet another troublesome World Cup qualification campaign.
The ramifications of tonight’s qualifier between the Socceroos and Japan in Saitama are immense and cannot be understated. Just hours after the match will be completed, Saudi Arabia will, barring some miraculous performance from the Chinese on foreign soil, add another three points to their tally and sit comfortably on 12 with a perfect record in the group.
If the Socceroos also manage to produce a winning result, they and the Saudis will have gapped the field; potentially establishing a points lead in Group B even greater than the current six-point margin, should Oman fail to defeat the plucky Vietnamese in the Middle East on Wednesday morning.
Those two results would see both the Saudis and Socceroos nine points clear of Japan and seemingly out of reach for the remainder of the group. In essence, the foundational work required to qualify for Qatar 2022 will have been done and some might even dare to suggest that Graham Arnold’s team had already done enough.
That is a dangerous way to think, however it would be hard to imagine Japan eroding a nine point deficit to either side, especially considering their indifferent form and just how well both the ladder leaders are playing.
However, a Socceroo loss to Japan would tighten things up considerably and Saudi fans may well be hoping that result plays out, with a draw also not a bad outcome for them.
The Saudis with 12 points, Australia on nine and Japan holding six would be the state of play should the Samurai Blue rediscover their goal-scoring form and defeat the Socceroos.
After that, things would become very, very interesting.
All three results are distinct possibilities tonight, with Japan holding sway as reasonably firm favourites with betting agencies and the Socceroos paying, at the time of writing, in excess of $4.00 in a two-horse race.
Mighty good odds really, especially for a team seeking a 12th-straight win and their opponent having scored just one goal in 270 minutes. Yet this is Japan we are talking about and anything other than an emotional and committed effort with essentially their qualification hopes on the line is unlikely.
No doubt the Socceroos will need to be better than they were against Oman, where the score line perhaps flattered them a little when the entire contest is viewed in context.
Awer Mabil’s early goal appeared to come from nothing of consequence in terms of build-up, as both sides continued to feel each other out and Oman owned the latter parts of the first half. 1-1 at the break was an accurate reflection.
It was pleasing to see the Socceroos find the net a couple of times in the second half, something that has occurred a little more frequently in recent times, with Martin Boyle, Mitchell Duke and Mabil scoring regular goals.
However, Japan presents a different and potentially more compelling challenge, where precise defending and the creation of chances is likely to be considerably more difficult than it was against Oman.
Harry Souttar was caught out on numerous occasions by speedy Oman attackers running off his shoulder and forcing him to turn awkwardly, Rhyan Grant looked a little tired and the introduction and impact of Fran Karacic perhaps proved that hypothesis.
Alongside Aziz Behich and Trent Sainsbury as a back four, they will likely be challenged by an even more dangerous attacking unit.
Celtic forward Kyogo Furuhashi began Japan’s previous outing on the bench, suggesting he could well be unleashed from the start tonight; potentially forming a frightfully dangerous attacking threat with Southampton’s Takumi Minamino.
Arsenal’s most recent player of the month Takehiro Tomiyasu will provide headaches for either Mitchell Duke or Adam Taggart up front, with the central defender proving his worth against the best opposition in the world on a week to week basis.
In addition, Spanish-based Gaku Shibasaki and VfB Stuttgart’s Wataru Endo are a duo capable of controlling the midfield with ease.
There is quality and pedigree right across the park for Japan. Jackson Irvine, Aaron Mooy and Ajdin Hrustic will have their hands full in attempting to earn a fair share of possession in the centre of the pitch, and Tom Rogic, Mabil, Boyle and Arnold’s chosen striker will hope to benefit from their work and trouble what does look a settled and effective defence.
It could well be the busiest defensive night the Socceroos have seen for some time and the cracks evident against Oman seem likely to be opened even further tonight.
Japan have been poor thus far and exactly what is going wrong appears difficult to ascertain precisely. However with yet another lacklustre performance simply not an option for them, expect a return of the Samurai Blue we all enjoy watching.
Whatever they produce, it will better than what they dished up against Saudi Arabia last Friday and the Socceroos must do the same if they hope to extend their unbeaten run.