Belgium coach Roberto Martinez does not expect any surprises from Japan in the World Cup’s round of 16, as Maya Yoshida prepares for the challenge of facing a fully fit Romelu Lukaku.
After beating England 1-0 in Kaliningrad to top Group G, Belgium booked a meeting with the Samurai Blue in Rostov-on-Don, with a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs.
Martinez oversaw a 1-0 friendly win over Japan in November, before Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked and replaced by Akira Nishino, but the Spanish coach of the Red Devils nevertheless feels he knows what to expect.
“We played a very entertaining game in Bruges not long ago,” he said.
“There’s been a change of coach but not a real change in the squad. They’re very well organised, dynamic… technically, Japanese football is very strong and we expect a really competitive team. There won’t be any big surprises.”
Martinez, who has declared Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany fit to play at Rostov Arena, said of his team’s potential route through the knockout stages: “To be successful in a World Cup is not about facing the opponent that everyone expects is going to be giving you the golden key to go through.
“I don’t think that in the World Cup you can be successful by trying to hope to get an easy path. We saw that in the Euros two years ago.”
Lukaku scored the winner for Belgium in that friendly meeting last year, and Japan’s Southampton centre-back Maya Yoshida knows from his time playing in the Premier League of the difficulties the 25-year-old striker will pose.
“We have never got to the quarter-final before,” the defender said.
“It’s a new challenge for us to get through and hopefully we will make a new history for Japanese football.
“I know Lukaku is a fantastic player and I cannot stop him by myself. We have to fight and defend as a group and attack as a group.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Belgium – Romelu Lukaku
The Manchester United centre-forward, with four goals to his name, is just one behind Harry Kane and firmly in the race to win the Golden Boot. The strength, pace and clinical finishing of Lukaku could terrorise Japan’s suspect defence.
Japan – Takashi Inui
The 30-year-old Eibar attacking midfielder lacks the profile of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, but has been one of Japan’s best performers at the World Cup, opening the scoring against Senegal. Only introduced as a second-half substitute in the loss to Poland, his directness was badly missed early in the match in Volgograd.
KEY OPTA STATS:
– Belgium have won only one of their five encounters with Japan (D2 L2), although that came in their last meeting in November 2017 (1-0, goal by Romelu Lukaku).
– Belgium scored more goals than any other team in this year’s World Cup group stages (9). They were also one of three teams to win all three of their games (with Croatia and Uruguay).
– Belgium are unbeaten in their last 22 games (W17 D5), their last defeat dating back to September 2016 against Spain (0-2). As of the end of the group stages, only Spain were on a longer run amongst the 32 teams at the 2018 World Cup (23 games).
– Romelu Lukaku has scored 23 goals in 20 appearances for Belgium under manager Roberto Martinez, scoring four goals from four shots on target at this year’s World Cup. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, he was the only player in the group stages to score with his right foot, left foot and head.
– Since 2010, Keisuke Honda has scored (four) or assisted (three) seven of Japan’s last 10 goals at the World Cup. He has one goal and one assist to his name at the 2018 tournament despite playing only 38 minutes.