Tonight Japan hosts Saudi Arabia in a clash that could consign the hosts to merely battling it out for the 3rd placed World Cup Play-off position. At current Saudi Arabia top Group B with 10 points while Japan sit 3rd with 7 points. If the Saudis shock the Blue Samurai tonight, surely there is no way for Japan to gain automatic entry as 2nd placed Australia are expecting to take three points against Thailand in their upcoming fixture.
Saudi Arabia’s most recent win against United Arab Emirates was a stunning 3-nil thrashing. Playing at home in Jeddah, the Saudis were unable to assert their authority until a thunderous volley from substitute Fahad Al Muwallad. Al Muwallad’s goal was not dissimilar to Tim Cahill’s famed Brazil 2014 volley against Holland. Check the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBP1la1t2yQ
Prior to that Saudi Arabia had proved their mettle with a come from behind draw against Australia too. In that fixture the Saudi’s were once again at home and it was 32 year old Nasser Al Shamrani who redirected a teammate’s strike just seven or eight metres from the goal. Shamrani is a man that is familiar to Australian soccer fans after his antagonising efforts against Western Sydney Wanderers in the ACL made headlines in 2014.
This time Saudi Arabia will be forced to play away from their Jeddah fortress though. Tonight they’ll be at Saitama Stadium just north of Tokyo, the home of the mighty Urawa Reds. Bookies have ignored the form, or they’re placing a lot of importance in Japan being the home team, as the home team start $1.40 favourites (Saudis $7.50).
To date Japan have been disappointing but their recent draw with Australia away from home was a sign of improvement. The Blue Samurai were aggressive in the first half and played a more direct style than we’ve become used to. Possession stats show a dominant Australia at 67% but as the saying goes, statistics don’t tell the full story.
Nevertheless, Japan is in a place they didn’t expect to be at this point in World Cup Qualification. They simply must take points tonight. Watch for Genki Haraguchi who has picked up three goals in qualification so far, and is returning to his old home of Saitama Stadium. Haraguchi has surprised with his performance taking the limelight from big names Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki. Perhaps, if the aforementioned ‘big names’ perform tonight Japan can get their World Cup campaign back on track.