In 2018, Belgium – who would go on to reach the semi-finals – would need an injury-time goal from Nacer Chadli to knock out the plucky Japanese.
In a tournament featuring the brilliant Brazilians, the fantastic French and the ebullient English, Japan wouldn’t be the first nation that springs to mind as potential World Cup winners.
And yet they have a pretty solid record at international football’s premier event, reaching the Round of 16 in three of the last five editions.
In 2018, Belgium – who would go on to reach the semi-finals – would need an injury-time goal from Nacer Chadli to knock out the plucky Japanese, and so whatever happens in Qatar there’s no doubt that Hajime Moriyasu’s men will take some beating.
Mind you, not everybody is convinced of their chances. The football betting odds from William Hill make Japan a 250/1 outsider to lift the famous Jules Rimet trophy, and for context that means the bookies believe they are the 26th most likely team to win the tournament… and there are only 32 possible contenders.
But some encouraging displays in the EAFF E-1 Football Championship, where Japan were crowned winners after defeating South Korea in their final game, suggest that this Japanese side could be even stronger than their 2018 counterparts.
And plenty will argue that, individually, they have players who have elevated their game to the next level since the World Cup last took place four years ago.
Once upon a time, the Japanese national team was permed from players that plied their trade in the J-League, but now Moriyasu is able to call upon talents who are spread far and wide around the globe.
Their squad for the friendlies in September against the United States and Ecuador featured no fewer than 12 players that are currently playing their club football in one of Europe’s ‘big five’ divisions, with veteran defender Maya Yoshida, the impressive former Liverpool forward Takumi Minamino and the talented Daichi Kamada just three of that group.
Kyogo Furuhashi averages better than a goal every other game for Celtic, while Genki Haraguchi has featured for a Union Berlin side that somewhat surprisingly tops the German Bundesliga after seven rounds of matches.
Success is following a number of these Japanese stars around at club level, and if they can showcase their class as a collective then they can give their Group E rivals a run for their money in Qatar.
Japan will be favourites to defeat Costa Rica, of course, although games against Spain and Germany are much more difficult fare. But those two former giants of world football haven’t quite been at their best for a number of years now and so perhaps opportunity knocks for the Japanese.
They qualified for the World Cup in breezy fashion, so confidence must surely be high in the camp, and the fact that they have lost just two of their last 16 games in all competitions speaks volumes.
Japan have never made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, but all of the ingredients appear to be in place for a concerted push to the last eight in Qatar. At which point, those odds of 250/1 will look rather generous indeed…