A very warm welcome will be exchanged to the Japanese team this summer in Brazil as their showing at the Confederations Cup last summer was one to be excited about. Despite losing all three of their games at the tournament, Japan put up a brave and entertaining fight as they impressed the Brazilian crowd with their slick passing and fast movement.
The Japanese had a big part to play in the best game of the tournament against Italy, as despite letting a two goal lead slip and eventually losing 4-3, they still managed to attempt over 300 passes in the opposition half, a stat only bettered by world champions Spain. The side, managed by Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, will again be hoping to impress the millions watching with their attractive brand of football.
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How they got there
Japan were the first to team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup meaning it was the third successive time that they have been the first nation in the world to qualify for the tournament. A last minute Keisuke Honda penalty to level the match up against Australia meant that Japan finished on top of the group ahead of the Soceroos. Japan scored 16 goals and conceded 5 whilst topping AFC group B which also included Oman, Jordan & Iraq.
Who to look out for
You wouldn’t usually associate a nations star players with sitting on the bench at club level but that is certainly the case with Japan. AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa are the stars of the Japanese team but haven’t been given much of a look in at their clubs this year. Honda has only competed 90 minutes three times in his 12 games at AC Milan after his publicised move from CSKA Moscow whereas Kagawa has only started 13 times for United. Both however will be relied on heavily at the World Cup as Japan will hope their stars lack of game time during the year won’t affect them too much. Japan's other stars, however, haven’t found it as difficult to get games under their belt this season with FSV Mainz’ 05 Shinji Okazaki & Cerezo Osaka’s Yoichiro Kakitani finding themselves as regular starters at their clubs.
Honda will be hoping to bring the form he showed at the last World Cup in 2010 to Brazil this summer. He was named man of the match in two group games, scoring twice including a special free kick against Denmark. The 27 year old attacking midfielder recently scored in friendly matches against Belgium, Holland, Ghana & Uruguay and also scored five goals in qualifying. He is very assured and calm in possession which is something is team mates will be relying on to progress from their group.
Despite being somewhat of an outcast at Manchester United this season, Kagawa never fails to impress when called upon by his national side. His recent two goal haul against New Zealand meant that he brought his tally up to 17 in 54 appearances which isn’t bad for an out and out playmaker. The two goals showed that his lack of game time hasn’t slowed him down and the 25 year old is looking to continue to provide a goal scoring threat at the tournament. His omission at United is seen as a huge surprise in Asia, especially considering his performances for Borussia Dortmund and the fact that in March of last year, Kagawa became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League.
With 21 goals in 34 games for Cerezo Osaka last season, Kakitani seemed certain for a place at the World Cup in Brazil but his recent showings haven’t lived up to the expectations that were attached to him after some fine performances in the J-League. Kakitani only has 1 goal in 10 outings this season in the league but has managed to chip in with four goals in six Asian Champions League games. His four goals for the national team last year should see him picked for the tournament and he will be hoping to show the talent that had the likes of Arsenal interested in him.
Record breaker Okazaki will be leading the line for Japan in Brazil. The FSV 05 Mainz striker who joined from Stuttgart in the summer, recently notched his 14th goal of the season meaning he became the highest scoring Japanese player in a Bundesliga season taking over Shinji Kagawa who scored 13 goals for Dortmund in the 2011-2012 season. Mainz are looking to reach a European competition, in the shape of the Europa League, for only the second time in their history and it is Okazaki’s goals that are leading them in that direction. Impressively, Okazaki is only four goals away from top scorers Robert Lewandowski and Mario Mandzukic which is good news for Japan who will be hoping he can lead them in the direction they want to go in Brazil.
Defensive frailties and mistakes haven’t been too far away from Japan recently but they will be looking to Hertha Berlin’s Hajime Hosogai, FC Tokyo's Masato Morishige & Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo to clear things up at the back against some dangerous opposition in Brazil.
Arguably, one of Hertha Berlin’s best players this season, Hosogai usually operates in a defensive midfield role but may be asked to fill in at centre back for his national team this summer. Southampton’s Maya Yoshida hasn’t got much game time this season due to an injury meaning Hosagai may have to help in sewing up the Japanese defence.
The 26 year old has gone from strength to strength recently and will be hoping that his performances can repay Alberto Zaccheroni who called up the defender to the national side for the first time in 4 and a half years last July. With 32 goals conceded in 17 games, Morishige will be playing a big part in trying to stop the goals flying in against Japan.
The pacey 27 year old signed for Italian giants Inter Milan in 2011 and has been a regular in the side ever since. This season he has made 18 appearances in the league and has chipped in with five goals. He likes to get up and down the wing at quick pace and Japan will be relying on that experience he has gained from 66 international caps to help his wingers and fellow defenders to create and block chances.
Who they will face
This is only the third World Cup that Greece will be involved in and after falling at the first hurdle in 2010, manager Fernando Santos, who is leaving after the tournament, will be hoping to go at least one step further this time around. At one end, Greece are solid as a rock at the back conceding only four goals in ten games in qualifying but are weak at the other end of the pitch scoring only 12 goals. They will be hoping that the most expensive player to come from their country, Celtics Georgios Samaras will lead them out of the group stages and give the country a much needed lift after the recent financial crisis.
Although the papers have been filled with Radamel Falcao’s race for fitness, many would have forgotten that Colombia have a €45 million euro man leading their midfield in the shape of Falcao’s Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez. His performances in Ligue 1 this year have got everybody in France talking which is music to Colombia manager Jose Pekerman’s ears. In line to replace Falcao, however, if he fails to regain full fitness, is Porto’s Jackson Martinez who scored 19 goals in 35 appearances in Portugal. Also in the frame is Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca who has had an enjoyable season in Spain scoring 16 goals in 38 appearances.
Yaya Toure. That is all.
How will they do?
Japan should provide some entertaining football and will be involved in some interesting games but on paper they should also be looking at a group stage exit. Paired with 2004 European Cup winners Greece, tournament dark horses Colombia & Yaya Toure led Ivory Coast, this group may prove too tough for the Japanese to advance from.
However, Brazil is home to a large population of Japanese people and after their style of play was lapped up by the locals at the Confederations Cup last summer, Japan will have a lot of vocal support at the tournament. Also having Pikachu as their mascot has to be seen as a possibility that anything could happen this summer in Brazil!
By Andy Harte - Arsenal fan - @andyharte_