Japan aim to keep Honda's dream alive

Japan aim to keep Honda's dream alive

Akira Nishino might be forgiven for pinching himself if Japan get the draw they need against eliminated Poland on Thursday to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.

Just over two months ago he wasn't even in charge of the Blue Samurai and their most recognisable player Keisuke Honda was far from certain of being on the plane to Russia.

Now coach Nishino's side need only a point against the Poles in Volgograd to make it to the knockout stages, thanks to a late equaliser from Honda against Senegal.

It followed the first World Cup win by an Asian country against a South American side when Japan overcame 10-man Colombia 2-1.

Even a defeat may be enough if Senegal beat Colombia, however Japan have their fate in their own hands just months after their World Cup hopes seemed in disarray.

The Japan Football Association took a massive gamble to sack Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April following a string of poor performances and reports of friction with senior players.

But it has paid off handsomely and the doubters have been silenced by Nishino's tightly-organised Japan playing with pace, guile and no little skill to remain undefeated at the top of Group H in Russia.

Indeed, the former AC Milan and CSKA Moscow striker Honda may not have been at the World Cup at all had Halilhodzic still been in charge, so poisonous had their relationship become.

But the instantly recognisable bleach-blond, spiky-haired livewire has been born again as an impact substitute under Nishino.

Honda, who now plays for Pachuca in Mexico, became the first Japanese player to score in three World Cups after he climbed off the bench to secure the 2-2 draw in Yekaterinburg.

It was very different last August when Honda had sat glumly on the bench as Japan secured their spot in Russia with a home win against Australia.

Before leaving for Russia, the outspoken striker whose goals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa shot him to fame, took the opportunity to stick the boot into Halilhodzic.

Poland skipper Robert Lewandowski urged his team to salvage some pride after a sorry World Cup campaign saw them the first European side to be eliminated.

Lewandowski, who has been unable to make a mark in the tournament, hinted at international retirement when he said that the Japan clash would be "for some of us... our last game for the national team".

A win or draw on Thursday for the Blue Samurai and the 32-year-old Honda, on probably his final World Cup hurrah, can keep the dream alive.