Kuala Lumpur: The Asian Qualifiers are back and Japan will have the chance to further strengthen their position in Group F when they meet Mongolia on Tuesday.
The roads to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 are open once again but, in the ever-changing world of international football, how clearly will we recognise teams we haven't seen in competitive action for well over a year?
Join the-AFC.com as we analyse the start of play for Hajime Moriyasu’s Japan, who are aiming to succeed on multiple honours in the coming months.
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The Asian Qualifiers story so far
In two words: plain sailing. Four wins, 13 goals scored, and none conceded paints a compelling picture of Japan’s dominance of Group F, with three of those wins coming in unfamiliar away destinations.
A 2-0 win in Myanmar got the ball rolling, a 6-0 romp at home Mongolia built more momentum, but a pair of wins in Central Asia – 3-0 against Tajikistan in Dushanbe and 2-0 over Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek – emphatically underlined their status at the top team in the section.
Where do they sit in their group?
Japan’s flawless record unsurprisingly puts them clear on top of the table, and while Tajikistan’s win over Mongolia last week narrowed the gap to two points, a game in hand and the prospect of all four of their remaining fixtures coming on home soil means Hajime Moriyasu won’t be fretting too much about advancing to Round 3.
Japan went through this stage of the competition without conceding a goal for Russia 2018 qualifying, and they look equally at ease this time around, with three home defeats out of their final four games needed to knock them off top spot.
How ready are they to resume competitive international football?
Few national teams in Asia have been as active as Japan in the last six months.
Four friendlies on European soil in late 2020 shook out the cobwebs, and last Thursday’s 3-0 friendly win over regional rivals Korea Republic will have done Moriyasu’s men no harm in terms of confidence.
Results have been promising across the board. 1-0 wins over Panama and Cote d’Ivoire and a goalless draw with Cameroon came and went with minimal defensive concerns, with a competitive 2-0 defeat to Mexico the only slip-up.
What has changed since their last match in November 2019?
This is a squad packed with new faces, but unlike some other sides across the continent, that is a cause for excitement rather than concern.
Nine of the 23-man squad are either uncapped or took their international bow against Korea Republic last week, while Kyogo Furuhashi (pictured below) – instrumental in Vissel Kobe’s surge to the 2020 AFC Champions League semi-finals – has two caps to his name.
The gap between competitive internationals has also seen the stock of a number of European-based players rise.
Daichi Kamada and Wataru Endo have firmly established their quality in Germany’s Bundesliga, while 22-year-old Takehiro Tomiyasu can now be considered one of Asia’s finest defensive players based on his excellent performances for Bologna in Italy.
Just four of the starting line-up from the side that won 2-0 in Bishkek are among the current squad.
Are there any worries?
It is unlikely that Japan will be overly threatened by a Mongolia team they beat 6-0 in October 2019, but they will have to make do without a number of young players who might otherwise have been available.
That is because Japan, as Olympic hosts, are actively preparing for this summer’s football tournament at the Tokyo Games, with Takefusa Kubo one 14 full internationals currently in camp with the U-24 national team, who have met Argentina in a pair of friendlies.
Likely for the same reason, breakout J1 League star Kaoru Mitoma remains absent from the senior squad, with Japan hoping to carefully divide their resources between the pursuit of an Olympic medal and the need to qualify for the most important events in the senior game.
MONGOLIA v JAPAN
Venue: Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba
Kick-off: Tuesday, 19:30 (UTC+9)
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