VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Japan may be through to the last 16 despite losing to already-eliminated Poland thanks to having incurred fewer yellow cards than Senegal, but they will need to show much more skill to upset heavyweights Belgium on Monday.
Embarrassed and apologetic after Thursday’s defeat against Poland and the team’s decision to let the clock run down so they could slip through at the expense of the African side, Japan vowed to play livelier football next week.
“We want the players to be more free and attacking in the next match,” coach Akira Nishino said on Thursday.
“Until this point, we have taken an aggressive approach throughout, and I feel like luck was on our side,” he said.
But the Samurai Blue will need more than just luck against Belgium, a squad oozing talent who ply their trade in top leagues across Europe.
Belgium finished top of Group G after beating England on Thursday, despite defeat potentially offering an easier path to the final, with coach Roberto Martinez hoping fortune will favour the brave.
“It will definitely be a hard match. Belgium are a better team than us,” Japan defender Yuto Nagatomo told FIFA.
“However, Japan can now play with confidence. We have nothing to lose.”
Japan defied low expectations in their group thanks to an early red card for Colombia in their opening game, which they went on to win 2-1, getting them off on the right foot despite then drawing 2-2 against Senegal and losing 1-0 to Poland.
One silver lining for Nishino, who made six changes to his starting line-up against Poland, is that many of his players got to rest before the last 16, including Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
“In the past two World Cups, we have exhausted ourselves in the group stage. We might be in a similar situation, but I want my players to keep a stronger spirit and intention against the opposing teams. I want the team to approach the matches differently than they have in the past. We cannot be afraid of our opponents, and we must have the confidence. We want to enter the match with a strong mentality.”
Should Japan pull off another upset by beating fancied Belgium, they would face either Brazil or Mexico in the quarter finals.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson