Saudi Arabia can punch their ticket to World Cup 2022 on Tuesday with a victory over Japan at Saitama Stadium in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Green Falcons are unbeaten in qualifying thus far and four points clear of the Samurai Blue, who have won four straight fixtures, following a 1-0 defeat to the Saudis in October.
In their first qualifier of the New Year, Hajime Moriyasu and his Japanese side picked up right where they left off in 2021, going in front after 13 minutes on Thursday against China, while their defence did the rest, shutting down their arch-rivals, collecting a third successive clean sheet in a 2-0 win.
When they can jump ahead to an early lead, they are a tough team to catch, having found the back of the net within the opening 20 minutes of play in three of their previous four qualifiers.
Moriyasu and the team learned a hard lesson at the previous World Cup about the consequences of being complacent, as the man who served as an assistant to Akira Nishino in 2018 saw his side squander a 2-0 second-half advantage to Belgium, falling 3-2 thanks to a last-gasp winner from Nacer Chadli.
Since that heartbreaking defeat, the Samurai Blue have never lost when scoring first, winning 23 of their 25 matches in which they have drawn first blood, only dropping points versus Uruguay (2-2) and Ecuador (1-1) at the 2019 Copa America.
As compact and composed as they have looked, it can all come crashing down in a hurry, especially seeing as Australia are nipping at their heels, just a point behind them for second place in that group.
Since dropping a 1-0 decision to Colombia in March 2019, they have only suffered one defeat on home soil, conceding an 88th-minute strike to Issam Al Sabhi in a 1-0 loss to Oman in their opening match of this qualifying round.
A place in Qatar is within reach for Saudi Arabia, who have won 12 of their 15 qualification fixtures in the second and third round, with the other three results being draws against Palestine (0-0), Yemen (2-2) and most recently Australia (0-0).
Manager Herve Renard has a lovely luxury which his Japanese counterpart cannot boast, as the entire Saudi team feature domestically in the Western Asian nation, and that familiarity among the players is evident.
The 53-year-old Frenchman has brought out the best from this team, turning them into a cohesive unit, while their individual quality has shone brightly.
This edition of The Green Falcons are fast and direct, while also being much more compact and disciplined than they were under their former boss Bert van Marwijk, who was dismissed before the 2018 finals.
When you watch how calm and composed they are during their games, it is hard to believe that only three players on the current squad selected for this qualifying window are 30 years of age or older.
They have not conceded on the road in their previous four qualifying matches, outscoring their opponents 5-0 over that stretch.
Japan World Cup Qualifying – Asia form:
Saudi Arabia World Cup Qualifying – Asia form:
We say: Japan 1-0 Saudi Arabia
These are two evenly matched teams, who could both be qualified for the World Cup at the end of this round, but we are giving the Samurai Warriors a slight edge, primarily because they have been a little better when it comes to limiting the amount of quality scoring opportunities of their opponents.
In their 10 visits to the Land of the Rising Sun, the Saudis have lost nine times to the Japanese and given how close the standings are, expect to see a little more urgency from the Samurai Blue, who do not have the luxury of holding a slight cushion in the table, like The Arabian Falcons.