YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Japan will look to further explore their attacking potential when they face Senegal in a battle of the surprise contenders to advance to the knockout stage from Group H on Sunday.
The Blue Samurai have largely worked on keeping things tight at the back since head coach Akira Nishino took over from the sacked Vahid Halilhodzic in April but saw their attack shift gears in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over 10-man Colombia in Saransk.
“We had to start by building the base, which is defense,” midfielder Genki Haraguchi told Kyodo news agency. “But with that base in place, our ability to attack and respond to different situations is increasing.”
Victory saw Japan become the first Asian side to beat South American opponents at the World Cup but they are fully aware that Senegal, who scored an upset 2-1 win over Poland, could pose a sterner test at the Ekaterinburg Arena.
“We must keep our feet on the ground... we have to take into account that we played against 10 men for almost 90 minutes,” skipper Makoto Hasebe said, referring to Carlos Sanchez’s dismissal which gave Japan the advantage against Colombia.
“The next game will be a different story, we have to think about that,” the defensive midfielder added.
Senegal come into the match equally high on confidence after a strong defensive display in Moscow helped them neutralize the Polish attack led by Robert Lewandowski.
“Senegal won due to discipline,” coach Aliou Cisse, captain of the side which beat holders France in their first ever World Cup match in 2002, said. “You saw a Senegal team very solid, very compact.”
With 10 of their starting XI from the last match playing in Europe, including Liverpool forward Sadio Mane and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal resemble a well-drilled European side and could make life tough for Japan.
Playing in their first World Cup in 16 years, Senegal carry the hopes of Africa with Egypt and Morocco out while Nigeria and Tunisia both losing their opening games.
Japan, who will bank on goalscorers Shinji Kagawa and Yuya Osako as well as Keisuke Honda to provide thrust going forward, are confident they have what it takes to seal a third trip to the last 16 — the furthest they have reached at a World Cup.
Progress could result in a possible meeting with England or Belgium but Nishino is not looking too far ahead. “We’ll focus on showing our strength in the next match,” he said.
Editing by Christian Radnedge