18:00 BST, Friday June 8, Stadio di Cornaredo (Lugano, Switzerland)
Japan head to the idyllic city of Lugano to meet Switzerland in what will be their penultimate game before they jet off to Russia.
For the Swiss, it’s the last chance to play with tactics, shape, and formation before they begin their World Cup journey on the 17th of this month against tournament favourites, Brazil.
Switzerland finished second in their UEFA qualifying group, by virtue of goal difference. The Swiss and Portugal were jostling for top spot the entire campaign, and a final round fixture between the two sides would prove the decider.
The Swiss travelled to Lisbon three points clear of the Portuguese, meaning a draw would have sent them to Russia automatically. A 2-0 defeat, though, sent them into second spot, and playoff anguish.
Narrowly edging past Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate in rather contentious circumstances, the Swiss haven’t lost in five matches.
For the Japanese, the route was less arduous, albeit too close for comfort for some.
After dominating their group in the second round of qualifying, Japan were placed into the Group B of the AFC regions third round; ten home-and-away fixtures with Saudi Arabia, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Thailand.
Japan topped the group, thus qualifying automatically for the finals, but only by a single point.
Akira Nishino’s men will complete their warm-up fixtures by meeting Paraguay in Austria only four days after the game in Lugano.
With only one more fixture remaining for his side, manager Vladimir Petkovic will look to set his team in stone to prepare for their World Cup opener against Brazil.
Much of the squad that started the 1-1 draw with Spain on Sunday didn’t complete the full 90 minutes, so a full run out for the same group may be on the cards for this fixture.
Nishino trimmed his squad after the game in Spain, and an unlucky few were told they were surplus to requirements.
Japan’s recent form has been poor, and Nishino will be torn between selecting a stronger squad to avoid any potential confidence, or waiting until the final game in Austria with Paraguay before settling his XI.
Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa stand a good chance of returning to the starting lineup after limited minutes on Sunday.
Key Battle: Shinji Kagawa (Japan) vs Stephan Lichtsteiner (Switzerland)
Both attacks deploy interchangeable formations. Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber are likely to switch flanks throughout for Switzerland while Honda and Kagawa will do the same for the Japanese.
Much of the creative responsibility from both sides will fall to the wider players. Japan have had problems in front of goal recently, only scoring three times in four games, all of which were at home.
Kagawa will be slightly fresher having only played 45 minutes in the recent defeat to Ghana, and it will be his passing and vision that will be key to Japan getting back on track.
Can Japan stop their poor run?
Japan have selected three warm-up friendlies that will undoubtedly test them before heading to Russia, and it is already proving difficult.
While Nishino may not yet be fully convinced of his best starting XI, four home games without a win – including a 1-4 defeat to South Korea and a 1-2 loss to Ukraine – is cause for concern, especially this close to a World Cup.
Switzerland, meanwhile, are in solid form. The critical loss to Portugal back in October stopped a run of ten straight wins. Since then, they are unbeaten in five, winning three.
Prediction: Switzerland 2-0 Japan
Switzerland’s home form has been imperious. They have only conceded two goals in two years on their own turf; Hungary snatched a pair consolation strikes in a 5-2 defeat.
Conversely, Japan’s away form has been awful. Their last victory on the road came back in March 2017. They haven’t scored away from Japan in almost a year.
The pressure will build on Samurai Blue, and they will need two decent performances in these next two fixtures to prevent going to Russia empty on confidence.
Can Switzerland keep their good form going? Let us know below.
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