- Japan climbed seven places to 44th in April's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking
- Samurai Blue are back on top of their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group
- Coach Vahid Halilhodzic's "main objective is to get to Russia 2018"
Japan have overcome a disappointing start in the ongoing Asian qualifying third round for the 2018 World Cup to put their campaign back on track. Notably, two back-to-back victories in March moved Vahid Halilhdozic's side to the summit of their group, edging out Saudi Arabia on goal difference and moving ahead of Australia by three points. These significant results saw them make an impressive seven-place move in April’s FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking to 44th, leapfrogging the likes of Ghana, Czech Republic and Côte d'Ivoire.
The current placing marks the Samurai Blue's best position in the global pecking order since 2014. Japan may still trail Asia's top sides Iran and Korea Republic but with the recent move, they have significantly cut down the gap on the latter to a single place. With three qualifying fixtures remaining, Halilhodzic's outfit have high hopes of gaining further ground.
Japan's third round qualifying campaign has been accurately mirrored by their moves in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. An unexpected 2-1 loss to United Arab Emirates in the opener led to a seven-place slump to 56th in the September 2016 edition. Despite the blow, however, they bounced back with a 2-0 victory at Thailand and beat Iraq 2-1 at home before drawing against arch-rivals Australia 1-1 in their next fixture on the road, results which enabled them to gain five places back in October. Another six-place move was followed in November thanks to their 2-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia at home as they soared to a 2016 high of 45th.
Lack of action in the next few months may have seen Japan slip to 51st this March but two comfortable wins, a 2-0 away defeat of United Arab Emirates and a 4-0 thrashing of Thailand, made sure of their eye-catching progress made in this month's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
*Changing of the guard *Japan's recent form and their consistent move up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking have, in part, come as a testament to Halilhodzic's successful transformation of the team. Having taken Algeria to the last 16 at Brazil 2014, he was appointed Japan coach the following year with the task of guiding the side to a sixth successive World Cup.
His start with Japan was far from ideal, though, with a disappointing goalless draw against Singapore in the second qualifying round opener in the middle of 2015 an early warning sign. However, the Bosnian gradually exerted his influence on the team, instilling his know-how into the players and coming out with strategies and structures that suited the Japanese. The side bounced back from the opening draw to win seven games out of seven, progressing to the next stage without conceding a goal.
While making sure that his side can maintain their winning form, Halilhodzic is all too aware that the team needs fresh blood to complement the old heads if they are to live up to the expectations of reaching Russia. As a result, new faces have been consistently introduced to the squad with less than half of their 2014 World Cup line-up making the most recent squad.
The coach's transformation of the team has paid off during the third qualifying round. Even when his side had to make do without captain Makoto Hasebe due to injury and with Keisuke Honda reduced to a substitute role due to a lack of form, the *Samurai Blue *showed a marked improvement in the recent double-headers. Defender Maya Yoshida shone in his new captaincy role and Shinji Kagawa provided the team with experience and drive. However, a fresh gem named Yuya Kubo stole the show.
Having only made his qualifying debut in the 2-1 triumph against Saudi Arabia in November 2016, the 23-year-old Gent forward proved instrumental in their recent back-to-back wins. Kubo grabbed his first international goal when he opened the scoring in the 2-0 win in the UAE and five days later, he had a hand in three goals as the side comprehensively saw off Thailand.
With the team beginning to gel, it is no surprise that Halilhodzic is confident of completing his mission with Japan.
"My main objective is to get to Russia 2018," he told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "It’s not an easy task and no one will be making it easy for us. But I’m trying to take a different team to the world finals for the third time in a row. If we do get to Russia, I hope to go further than I did with Algeria in Brazil."
Samurai Blue in numbers
0 goals conceded by Japan during the second round of 2018 World Cup qualifying
9 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is their record high, back in 1998
2 goals in 3 WCQ games for Yuya Kubo since his World Cup qualifying debut in November