History suggests early exit for Japan from tough group
Domestic and German-based players dominate the Japan national squad setup, but it is attackers Keisuke Honda of AC Milan and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa who hold the key for the Asian nation achieving their best result at a World Cup.
Japan (100/1 trophy hopes) go into their fifth tournament, all in a row, and have been pooled in a tough-looking Group C containing Colombia, the Ivory Coast and Greece. They are joint second-favourites with the Elephants both to finish top (4/1), and qualify for the knockout stages (evens).
There seems to be a pattern from previous World Cups with Japan. Since their first appearance at the finals in France 1998, they have alternated between suffering exits in the group stage and last 16.
Based on that, they are set to be eliminated at the first hurdle again, and are odds-on at 8/11 to do so. However, they are 15/8 to break the chain and bow out in the first knockout round, or 7/1 to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, before exiting.
National coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who has guided the Samurai Blue to triumphs in the 2011 Asian Cup and 2013 East Asian Cup during his spell, has a solid spine to his side.
The Italian has on offer the likes of Standard Liege’s Eiji Kawashima in goal, Maya Yoshida (Southampton) at the back, captain Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg) and veteran Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka) behind Honda, with Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) likely upfront.
Although Okazaki was top scorer in qualifying for Japan, he played his games out wide but, with usual striker Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo Iwata), 32, seemingly out of the picture, it looks as if he will lead the line in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
It remains to be seen whether Hasebe, who also captained Japan at the 2010 World Cup, will be fit for the competition in time. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder is still recovering from a knee injury sustained in January. If he misses out, that could mean a place in the XI for Kengo Nakamura (not to be confused with former Celtic namesake Shunsuke), of Kawasaki Frontale.
There is much more to the team than just the spine, however. Kagawa will resume his unfavoured role that he usually plays at Man Utd, out wide on the left, with Hasebe’s clubmate Hiroshi Kiyotaki hoping to occupy the other flank.
Former Borussia Dortmund star Kagawa will link up with central attacker Honda. The AC Milan player has failed to impress since his move to the Italians in January, and has been used mainly out wide, but Zaccheroni knows him well and will play him to his strengths to benefit the team.
The full back positions are well covered as well, with attack-minded duo Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan) on the left, and Atsuto Uchida (Schalke) set to occupy the right side.
Centre back Yoshida will likely have Gamba Osaka’s Yasuyuki Konno to partner him at the heart of defence. The 31-year-old can play in a number of positions, but is seen as the only option to start alongside his Southampton counterpart.
It is a tough ask for the Samaurai Blue to come through this difficult pool, and it looks as if the Ivory Coast will join group favourites Colombia into the last 16 at Japan’s expense.