World Cup Team Profile - Japan
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makato Hasebe (Nurnberg)
Full Japan Roster
The Road to Rio: Japan was actually the second team to qualify for Brazil, behind the automatically-qualified hosts. They breezed through the third round, piling up 10 points through their first four games before putting it into cruise control for the final two tests.
Again, Japan would get out of the gate quickly in the final round of Asian qualifying, blanking the opposition in three of their first four matches (Oman, Jordan and Iraq) and earning a draw against Australia. Despite a road loss to Jordan, Japan needed only a point against Australia on June 4 to earn a ticket to Brazil and they did so in dramatic fashion, thanks to a successful Keisuke Honda penalty in stoppage time.
Last World Cup appearance: South Africa 2010 (Round of 16)
First World Cup appearance: France 1998 (Group Stage)
Previous World Cup appearances: 4
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2 – Korea/Japan 2002, South Africa 2010)
Easily the best team in Asia, Japan sees this World Cup as its chance to break out on the big stage and get to the next level in world football. It won't be easy, though.
Much like it did for Mexico, Manchester United under David Moyes has created a significant inconvenience for the Samurai Blue by not using one of their side's key contributors. The team's most talented player, United's Shinji Kagawa, featured so infrequently this season that questions about his form and mindset heading into Brazil are legitimate ones and will force Zaccheroni to tinker with his offence. There are players ready to pick up the slack, but Japan can ill-afford a rusty or, worse, indifferent Kagawa derailing its attack.
At the heart of the Samurai Blue will be Keisuke Honda. The Milan man will be the key cog in a creative offence and whose set-piece mastery will be something of which the rest of Group C will certainly be wary. In the past Honda and Kagawa have meshed well together moving forward and if they can click again, any fears about Kagawa's form will abate. Look for Honda to drop back slightly, just ahead of Hasebe and Gamba Osaka's Yasuhito Endo (or Cereza Osaka's Hotaru Yamaguchi, who has emerged as a more than competent midfield option), in a more compact attack to allow movement on the flank from Yugo Nagamoto (Inter) and room for leading goal scorer in qualifying and scorer of 15 goals in the Bundesliga this season, Shinji Okazaki (Mainz). Promising attacker Yuya Osako (just transferred to promoted Cologne) could also get a run out front.
The Samurai Blue's back four won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of its opposition, but there is enough experience present to weather most storms. Still, bleeding goals against top opponents (four against Italy at last summer's Confederations Cup) has become somewhat of a regular occurrence as of late. The most glaring weakness is at centre back where the first choice pairing of Maya Yoshida (Southampton) and Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka) also suffered from a lack of playing time in their club campaigns this past year.
As such, the Samurai Blue will live and die with its attack. If Zaccheroni can get his offence firing, Japan should see another opportunity to advance to its first World Cup quarterfinal.