Japan's Kagawa and Honda look for way past spirited Singapore

Ever since the AFC second round 2018 World Cup draw was made in Kuala Lumpur six months ago, Singaporeans have been eagerly awaiting the biggest game of Group E -- Singapore vs. Japan at the new National Stadium in Kallang.

The excitement of seeing superstars like Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo has gone up a notch ever since the Samurai Blue touched down at Changi International Airport on Monday.

What has added to the spice of this game is the goalless draw in Saitama in June, as Izwan Mahbud and the Lions defied the odds to keep a clean sheet against Vahid Halihodzic's star-studded team in front of their own fans.

So on Thursday night, the Sports Hub will be a sea of contrasting colours as local supporters proudly wear red as they watch another David against Goliath story unravel on home soil.

Here are three thoughts on Japan's first appearance in Singapore since facing Brazil in a friendly in October 2014.

1. The Lions have never cowered to mighty Japan

This campaign is not the first time Singapore have faced the Japanese in World Cup qualifying. In 2004, the two nations were drawn alongside Oman and India, in the same group, ahead of Germany 2006.

In their two encounters a decade ago, Radojko Avramovic's side almost caused the shock result of the second round when Indra Sahdan fired in an equaliser on 62 minutes to cancel out Naohiro Takahara's opener. That was before the visitors got the points with a 81st minute winner from midfielder Toshiya Fujita to send the Jalan Besar crowd home disappointed.

Eight months later, Raddy's brave side refused to cower in Saitama, walking away with their heads held high after going down to a respectable 1-0 defeat. A 13th minute goal from Nagoya Grampus forward Keiji Tamada was the difference between the two nations.

So, before we get carried away with the goalless draw in June, let's remember that there were other gutsy performances against the four time Asian champions.

Also, head coach Bernd Stange has certainly had the rub of the green in this qualifying campaign.

The former Belarus boss has managed to eke out results even when his team are not playing well. So, on Thursday night, with many expecting a goal fest for the visitors, it could again work in favour of the home side.

The Lions have traditionally done well against Japan, which could mean another tighter than expected affair.

2. Makino is the defender who knows his way to goal

Halihodzic has many options when it comes to his first choice centre-back pairing. But if the past eight games are any indication, then the towering presence of Masato Morishige and Tomoaki Makino will be chosen duo.

While fans go crazy over superstars like Kagawa and Honda, Stange's stress levels may go even higher if he looks closely at the stats of defender Makino.

The Urawa Red Diamonds centre-back is coming off another great season with the J-League giants. And what is even scarier is his goalscoring record, despite continuing to do a stellar job in defence.

In four seasons with the Reds, the 28-year-old has banged in a total of 22 goals. Taking into account previous stints with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Bundesliga club FC Koln, his record is 46 goals in 316 matches. That means he has a 14.6 percent chance of scoring in every game he plays.

Singapore mustn't concede too many free-kicks in their own half because any chance for captain Makoto Hasebe, Kagawa or Honda to swing in their trademark set pieces, could mean an opportunity for Makino to send another tomahawk header towards Izwan in goal.

And even Singapore's very own spiderman may not be able to carry his team like he did in Saitama.

3. Izwan or Hassan Sunny to start?

And since we are on the topic of goalkeepers, the Japanese media have been surrounding Izwan ahead of the game, having witnessed his superhuman efforts five months ago.

But if they think the 25-year-old is a shoo-in for Stange's starting XI, then they are making a big mistake.

Thai Premier League (TPL) fans believe that Singapore custodian Hassan Sunny is the best keeper in Southeast Asia.

The 2014 S.League player of the year has produced man-of-the-match performances for Army United week in, week out. Last weekend he put pen to paper on a new two-year deal, well before the end of the 2015 TPL season.

In training this week, both keepers had their game faces on as they were put through their routines by goalkeeping coach John Burridge.

Neither one looked out of place, so it will take a brave man to predict who dons the gloves for Singapore in this high stakes game.

But one thing is sure: either pair of hands will be a good fit as Singapore seek to put another dent in the reputation of the Japanese national team, who have appeared in the last five World Cups.