Japan - World Cup 2014 Team Profile
Paul Williams reports
Road to Brazil
Just like a ride on the country's famous Shinkansen, Japan's path the Brazil 2014 was smooth and comfortable.
Despite losses to Uzbekistan and North Korea in the third round of qualifying, Japan was never in any serious doubt of advancing to the fourth and final round.
They might have eased their way through the third round, but they started the fourth round with an almighty bang, with back-to-back home games against Oman and Jordan resulting in thumping 3-0 and 6-0 wins respectively. The rest of Asia was on notice. It set-up their campaign and ensured the rest of their qualification was stress-free (as much as a World Cup qualifying campaign can be).
A solitary loss away to Jordan was their only hiccup and qualification was ultimately sealed in dramatic fashion when Keisuke Honda smashed home a late penalty against Australia to seal a 1-1 draw and the point needed to qualify. Saitama Stadium erupted and a nation partied as their ticket to Brazil was booked.
Japan Kit 1
Japan Kit 2
Since an eye-catching performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Japan has developed into a genuine international quality side, albeit one with a few weak points.
Lead by superstars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, Japan has won admirers from all over the globe for their attractive, attacking style of football.
After a protracted search post-South Africa, the Japan Football Association put their faith in Italian Alberto Zaccheroni to take the team to the next level and introduce a superior tactical nous that could see them achieve their dream of reaching the last four at the World Cup.
At their best Japan are lethal, especially in attack, and they proved so when they shocked Italy and the world at last year's FIFA Confederations Cup. It was something of a coming out party for Japan, a chance for them to prove their worth on the international stage. And while they certainly impressed, their defensive frailties were amplified.
It remains their biggest weak point, that and the lack of a genuine #9 who can score regularly at international level. But with seemingly unlimited attacking talent who create chance after chance that seems to be an easier problem to overcome.
Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno are the two nominal central defenders, but Yoshida has been on the fringes of the Southampton team and struggling with injury, and Konno has been deployed in midfield for his club side.
Even on their successful Belgian tour late last year there were times when lapses of concentration and schoolboy errors in defence were exposed and punished.
The other unknown is how Japan will deal with the higher level of expectation. While Group C is manageable for Japan, it is by no means certain that Japan will advance and it would be nothing short of a failure if they failed to progress to the Round of 16.
Key player: Shinji Okazaki
Okazaki may be a surprising choice for many, but he is the unsung hero of this Japanese team. While Honda and Kagawa get all the attention and plaudits, Okazaki is often the one who gets the job done.
His goal scoring record at international level would be the envy of most strikers and he comes into this World Cup on the back of his best club season in Germany with Mainz.
One to watch: Yuya Osako
After an impressive six-month stint with 2.Bundesliga side 1860 Munich, he has just sealed a move to the Bundesliga with FC Koln. One of Japan's emerging talents, the young striker has forced his way into the national team after impressing with Kashima Antlers last year, and on the Belgian tour in November. Quick and with a nose for goal he looks set to be a key figure in Japan's campaign.
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
After a lengthy career in Italy, many regarded Zaccheroni as a surprise appointment when he was unveiled in 2010. His tenure can be considered nothing but a success, however, guiding the team to the Asian Cup title just months into his reign and taking the team to their fifth successive World Cup.
While some questions emerged over his reliance on a select group of players, he has over the last 12 months given opportunities to players such as Hotaru Yamaguchi, Masato Morishige, Yuya Osako and Yoichiro Kakitani, all of whom will play a key role in qualifying for 2018, but more importantly could play a key role in this campaign. A coach always wants to leave a team in a better position than when he took over and there can be little doubt he has done just that.
1998, 2006 First Round. 2002, 2010 Round of 16
In a wide-open Group C Japan will need to make a bright start against Ivory Coast. With some players under injury clouds in the months leading up to the World Cup, Zaccheroni will breath easily knowing they are back to full fitness and can play a role, particularly captain Makoto Hasebe who highlighted his importance with an impressive second half display against Cyprus. We are backing them to make it out of their group, however a potential Round of 16 clash against Uruguay or Italy or even England means they may struggle to go much further.
2014 World Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Defenders: Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96), Gotoku Sakai (VfB Stuttgart)
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Makoto Hasebe (FC Nuremberg), Hiroshi Kiyotake (FC Nuremberg), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F. Marinos)
Strikers: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Yuya Osako (TSV Munich 1860), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale)