Japan have done it. They are the only Asian team to move out of the Group stages, with heavyweights like Iran and Australia failing to get out of their group. It was not an easy path through though, with a 1-0 defeat against Poland making it a nerve-wracking ending. But, let’s not dwell on the negatives. Japan took on the heavyweight of the group, Colombia, and they downed them with some conviction. It was a game which looked to have only one winner, and it ultimately did, albeit the early Red Card to Carlos Sanchez.
One bright spot for Japan would be their star players getting into goals, with both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa getting the back of the net, with Takashi Inui also coming up with the goods for Japan. Maya Yoshida has looked assured in the centre-back role, doing much better than he did for Southampton in a desperate campaign. Shibasaki has also done a terrific job in the middle of the park, diffusing opposition attacks and starting new ones of his own.
Belgium, on the other hand, tried their best to not top the group. They made 9 changes to their team which defeated Tunisia, started Dendoncker and Boyata in a 3 man defense and also decided to bench de Bruyne and Hazard. But alas, an Adnan Januzaj wonder-goal would have strengthened his claim to breach into the first team, but also angered his manager, as they now sit in a half with Brazil or Mexico waiting for them in the quarterfinals if they go through against Japan, which is nowhere near a done deal.
Belgium is a quintessential European team. It understands the European style of football, plays well against European minnows, but cannot handle the physical and unconventional style of football played elsewhere. It is a team full of grown-up babies who cannot handle physicality, prefer the money from their clubs over playing for their country, bar a few committed players (read: Lukaku), and will again fail to impress for sure in the knockout stages.
This is why Japan have a realistic chance of showing Belgium what pride and determination to win for their country looks like. They also have the players to make things happen, with Okazaki and Sakai yet to make a mark at the World Cup. Their only big concern will be E. Kawashima, their 35 year old goalkeeper. Kawashima has always been a liability, but his experience and lack of other competitive alternatives make him the first choice goalkeeper for Japan. If he can stay solid and come up with a big performance, then Japan have a chance to replicate the run by South Korea in 2002.
I know I have been hard on Belgium, but given their recent performances, and their attitude throughout the World Cup, they have not given me any cause to change the attitude. They might have won their group, but with Panama, Tunisia and a second string England as their opponents, the real physical test will begin in the knockout rounds. Expect a lot of Hazard rolling on the ground and Lukaku battling for the ball and pride, and do not count the Japanese out.