Schedule: June 14 vs. Ivory Coast; June 19 vs. Greece ; June 24 vs. Colombia
World Cup Record: 4-7-3 (Round of 16, 2002/2010)
Qualifying Form: Japan was the first team to qualify after host Brazil.
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni, a 61-year-old Italian appointed after the 2010 World Cup.
Player to Watch: Shinji Kagawa. The Manchester United midfielder (yes he’s still at Manchester United) didn’t feature much under David Moyes and failed to score in Premier League play. Perhaps that’s a bonus since he should be fresher come the start of the tournament. Most teams in Brazil wouldn’t mind to have Kagawa and Keisuke Honda as straight-up creative attacking midfielders in the same lineup.
Tactics/Style: Japan will be another classic 4-2-3-1 type teams. Inter-based Yuto Nagatomo and Schalke-based Atsuto Uchida provide width from the back, although both have been hit-or-miss in the Champions League. Veteran 30-somethings Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe anchor the midfield, leaving Honda and Kagawa to pull the offensive strings.
WAG of note: Kagawa was rumored to be dating “adult model/pornstar” Ameri Ichinose when he arrived in Manchester. Shockingly this was not true true. (Google at your own risk.)
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Reason to root for: Japan are among the least-buzzed about teams in the tournament, presenting a high “told you so” factor if you jump on the Samurai Blue bangwagon ahead of time.
Reason to root against: Nothing, really.
Odds of winning: 150-to-1
Miscellany: Since May 2013, Japan has only kept a clean sheet twice and those came against Iraq and Guatemala. … Shinji Okazaki scored 15 goals in 31 games for Mainz in the Bundesliga this year. He is one of six German-based players in the Japan squad. … Japan has won three of the last four Asian Cups. … Endo is Japan’s all-time most-capped player with 141 international appearances. … Honda made a fairly high-profile move from CSKA Moscow to AC Milan in the winter. He only scored once in 14 Serie A games, fitting in perfectly with the malaise inflicting the former European giants.
Wither Asia?: This will be Japan’s fifth consecutive World Cup appearance. South Korea — the other main Asian soccer power — has qualified for every tournament dating back to 1986. Much was made about the lack of progress of African teams last World Cup since it was played in South Africa. That said, the best performance by an Asian team was South Korea’s fourth-place showing in 2002 buoyed by fervent home support. Japan made the knockouts for the first time on home soil and then again in 2010. Japan and South Korea are a lot like the United States, in that they’re the big fish in weaker confederation. They’ll make the World Cup every four years, but in order to make a deep run almost everything would have to break in their favor. As always, the World Cup still remains the best of Europe vs. the best of South America … and everybody else.
Last word: Part of me looks at Japan as a sleeper team that, without much fanfare, should move into the Round of 16. Japan will be well-organized under Zaccheroni. Honda and Kagawa are world-class creative players at the top of their games. It’s a nice balance, but that defensive record is worrisome. Okazaki is in good form, but Japan isn’t built to win high-scoring games in the World Cup. Colombia and Ivory Coast present games that could be open on both ends. Beating Belgium 3-2 in a friendly is encouraging, however a 4-2 scoreline vs. New Zealand doesn’t bode well for the team’s defensive capabilities. Despite the trepidation, something tells me Japan is due to make a little run in Brazil. Call it a hunch, nothing more.
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