World Cup Preview – Japan (32/32)

Japan

AFC

Group H

Best WC Performance: Round of 16 x2 – 2002 and 2010

Current World Ranking: 61

History

Japan’s footballing history can be traced almost entirely in the last 30 years. Prior to 1988, Samurai Blue had never qualified for either a World or Asian Cup, though they won a memorable Bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games, driven by the goals of all-time top goalscorer Kunshige Yamamoto.

1988 marked Japan’s first appearance at the Asian Cup and though they exited at the group stage at the first attempt, they have won four of the seven tournaments since.

Japan’s first World Cup appearance came in 1998, and they have qualified on each occasion since. Their best result to date is the second round, achieved in both 2002 – when they jointly hosted the tournament with South Korea – and 2010.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo (both Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda (both Kashima Antlers).

Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale).

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz).

Group Fixtures:

  1. Vs Colombia 13:00, 19.06.18                                  Mordovia Arena, Saransk
  2. Vs Senegal 16:00, 24.06.18                                  Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
  3. Vs Poland 15:00, 28.06.18                                  Volgograd Arena, Volgograd

Manager – Akira Nishino

Veteran Japanese tactician Akira Nishino will lead his homeland to Russia, having only been appointed in April.

Despite qualifying for the World Cup, following a poor run of friendly results Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic was relieved of his duties.

Nishino was immediately brought into the fold, having taken a few years away from the game after leaving Japanese club Nagoya Grampus in 2015.

This will be his first managerial foray outside of Japanese club football, having coached four home based clubs over a 20-year career.

Qualification

A very comfortable qualification for Japan, with only Iran, Brazil and hosts Russia sealing their world Cup spots before them.

Entering Asian qualifying at round two, Samurai Blue drew one and won seven of their eight second round group matches, conceding no goals in the process.

The third round was far less straight-forward. Drawn with Saudi Arabia, Australia, Thailand, Iraq and the UAE, Japan lost their opening fixture at home to UAE.

Needing to finish in the top two to guarantee qualification, faith was quickly restored as they defeated Thailand and Iraq. A draw against Australia followed, but a win over closest rivals Saudi Arabia and in the reverse fixture with Australia meant top spot was secured with a game still to play.

They lost that final fixture to the Saudis, but finished with a record of 17 goals scored and only seven conceded over the 10 games.

Captain – Makoto Hasebe

Defensive midfielder Makoto Hasebe will proudly captain Japan at his third consecutive World Cup this summer.

34-year-old Hasebe made his international debut in 2006, but missed out on the World Cup that year. With over 100 caps to his name, 2018 will likely be his final chance on the World stage.

Hasebe has been deployed in a back three in recent friendlies, but is best suited to orchestrating midfield from deep. Expect to see him barking orders to his teammates as they attempt to keep the likes of Colombia, Poland and Senegal at bay in group H.

Danger man – Keisuke Honda

Though he is past his best, midfield maestro Keisuke Honda remains Japan’s most likely source of goals.

With 36 goals from nearly 100 appearances; including three in the last two world cups, Honda possesses the quality to break down any side on his day.

Sadly, his days are becoming less and less frequent, but having rediscovered his scoring touch at current club Pachuca of Mexico, the magic of the world cup may bring out the best in him once again.

Premier League Players

There will be two players from the Premier League in Japan’s squad this summer. Defender Maya Yoshida of Southampton is joined by Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City. Shinji Kagawa is the only other player with Premier League experience, and along with Yoshida and Okazaki is one of only seven Japanese players to play in the Premier League (also Junichi Inamoto, Ryo Miyaichi, Hidetoshi Nakata and Kazuyuki Toda).

The Japanese J1 League is the most common through the squad, closely followed by the Bundesliga, which enjoyed a surge in popularity in Japan following captain Makoto Hasebe’s move to Germany in 2008.

Prediction

This is not a squad big on names, quality or confidence. It is difficult to see where Japan will pick up any points this summer.

Kicking off the campaign against Colombia, most of the team will still be haunted by memories of the final group game four years ago between the two, where Colombia ran out 4-1 winners.

Senegal follow five days later in what is the easiest game on paper, but to progress from the group they will almost certainly have to pick up points from Poland or Colombia as well.

What the team lacks in quality, it makes up for in spirit. Shinji Okazaki will chase down every ball for every minute he is on the pitch, and celebrations will be wild whenever Japan get the ball in the opposition’s net.

But at the end of the day, it appears Japan are heading for another Group stage exit.

Written by Sam Hanys.

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