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Belgium favourites against combative Japan
Rostov-on-Don (Russia): Belgium, boasting one of the most talented squads in the FIFA World Cup, will be overwhelming favourites to go past Japan, the lone Asian side in the pre-quarterfinals, when the two sides clash here on Monday.
Belgium topped the Group D with a 100 per cent winning record following wins over Panama (3-0), 5-2 victory over Tunisia (5-2) and England (1-0).
Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez left most of his first-choice footballers on the bench for the England match so they could rest and avoid suspensions for the Round-of-16 match.
Even with a weakened side, the Belgians still recorded a fine win that buoyed morale even further and has put some pressure on the squad's habitual starters as they aim to reach their third World Cup quarter-final (after Mexico 1986 and Brazil 2014) and equal their World Cup record of four consecutive wins, set four years ago.
Their unbeaten 22-match run — the longest in Belgium's history — reflects the quality of a hugely talented side.
The Belgians boast a number of stars in their line-up including the likes of Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku (four goals in two matches), Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard and Manchester City attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
Other key players such as central defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are expected to return to the line-up after missing the England game.
In the midfield, Mousa Dembele, Yannick Carrasco and Axel Witsel are expected to start.
On paper, the world No.3 should have way too much firepower for Japan, who are ranked 58 places below the European outfit.
Japan have impressed so far in Russia with a 2-1 win over Colombia and a 2-2 draw in an entertaining match against Senegal before a 0-1 defeat to Poland. They advanced from the group phase on fair play points and are intent on winning a last-16 tie for the first time ever.
They have the experience to do just that — Eiji Kawashima, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Okazaki are each set to play their 11th match in the World Cup, a national record.
Along with Keizuke Honda, they will be looking to make up for the defeat to Paraguay at South Africa 2010, the last time that the Japanese featured in the knockout rounds.
Japan used a 4-4-2 formation in their last group match against Poland and lost. Coach Akira Nishino is likely to revert to the 4-2-3-1 system he deployed in the win over Colombia and the draw with Senegal.
Attacking midfielders Genki Haraguchi, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui will have important roles to play just behind striker Yuya Osako. The Japanese will look to attack down the flanks and their chances of success will hinge on how well they can supply midfielder Gaku Shibasaki.