2014 World Cup Group C team previews: Japan

Analysis of Japan's 2014 World Cup chances in a Group C with Greece, Ivory Coast and Colombia.
Japan team photo taken during World Cup qualifying on June 11, 2013. Stringer /EPA
Japan team photo taken during World Cup qualifying on June 11, 2013. Stringer /EPA

Japan’s attacking flair and favourable draw have boosted the belief they can reach a first World Cup quarter-final, but those ambitions rely on coach Alberto Zaccheroni being able to fix their leaky defence.

The Asian champions have been paired with Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece in an even-looking Group C in Brazil, their fifth consecutive appearance at the finals.

“If we can play to the best of our ability then we can be a threat. I am confident,” Italian Zaccheroni said after the draw in December.

“Obviously getting off to a good start is important.”

Japan made a quick start to qualifying and were the first side to book a berth in Brazil with playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda the architects of some silky play, but defensive issues were exposed along the way in a shock 2-1 loss in Jordan.

Three defeats followed at the Confederations Cup last year but they won many plaudits for their attacking play in a 4-3 loss to Italy and 2-1 defeat by Mexico after opening with a 3-0 defeat against hosts Brazil.

Zaccheroni called on the Japanese Football Association to find similarly testing fixtures for his charges to prepare them for the demands of a World Cup campaign and they duly obliged.

Attacking flair was again on show in the 4-2 home loss to Uruguay in August, where Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez flourished against Japan’s soft-centred back four, who lacked pace and protection.

Zaccheroni has flirted in friendly matches with a 3-4-3 or 3-6-1 formation but seems set to employ a 4-2-3-1 for Brazil, which would allow Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo to attack from the fullback positions.

Neither of them featured in Japan’s most impressive result, a 3-2 win against a highly regarded Belgium in November, which turned heads as it came just days after a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands.

Yoichiro Kakitani has emerged as a talented forward more than capable of creating as well as taking chances, and he scored in Brussels.

He should get game time in Brazil along with another newcomer, Yuya Osako, although the experienced Shinji Okazaki is likely to claim the starting striker spot.

Central defender Maya Yoshida has struggled for appearances with English club Southampton this year but had one of his more impressive outings against Belgium alongside Masato Morishige in the heart of the defence.

They were ably supported by 23-year-old Hotaru Yamaguchi, who took on the role of midfield protector, but whether his display was good enough to convince Zaccheroni to drop his trusted lieutenant Yasuhito Endo for Brazil is another matter.

Likewise, Yasuyuki Konno has been Zaccheroni’s favoured defender even though the Gamba Osaka man has struggled to repay the Italian’s faith with shaky displays for club and country.

Japan, with their attacking style at the forefront, are sure to be more entertaining than in their previous World Cup appearances, but may lack the defensive capabilities to be as successful in Brazil.

Five to watch:

Yuto Nagatomo, left-back (Inter Milan); Age 27; 67 caps. Starting left back who represents Japan’s most potent weapon down the flank with his marauding forward runs. Fan favourite for club and country due to his inexhaustible stamina, Nagatomo is considered a key player for the Asian champions.

Keisuke Honda, striker (AC Milan); Age 27; 53 caps. After the retirements of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura much of the attack has been built around the bleach-blonde attacking midfielder. Player of the tournament in Japan’s 2011 Asian Cup triumph, he slotted the penalty that ensured the Blue Samurai were the first team to qualify for Brazil. Moved to Italy from CSKA Moscow in January but has struggled to impose himself in Serie A.

Shinji Kagawa, midfielder (Manchester United); Age 25; 54 caps. The former Borussia Dortmund player joined Manchester United in 2012 but has struggled for game time. The livewire attacking midfielder prefers to be employed just behind the strikers but Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has moved him to wide left, which has caused some friction.

Shinji Okazaki, striker (Mainz); Age 28; 73 caps. The prolific international scorer (38 for Japan) scored 15 times in 31 Bundesliga matces as Mainz captured seventh – good for a trip to the Europa League. While Japan’s bigger names like Kagawa and Honda will be asked to create from behind, it will be Okazaki primarily responsible for finishing up front.

Yasuhito Endo, midfielder (Gamba Osaka); Age 34; 141. Has played his entire club career in Japan, including 407 matches with Osaka. The one-time Asian Player of the Year will mostly be asked to bring his experience to Zaccerhoni’s side and offer creativity and free-kick skills at his third World Cup.

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Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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