In the only group not to feature a past winner of the World Cup, Japan, like the other three sides in Group H, will believe they have a strong chance of progressing to the knock-out stages.
However, Japan’s preparations have not been as smooth as they would have liked.
Led into the tournament by Vahid Halilhodžić, the Japanese Football Association (JFA) dispensed of the Bosnian’s services with only 71 days remaining before their opening group game.
With JFA technical director Akira Nishino taking over the reigns, veterans Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki have all been reintroduced into the squad.
Their only game since the reshuffle was a 2-0 loss to Ghana on the home soil of Yokohama. However, with two more friendlies left to fine-tune their gameplan, there’s still time for Japan to find an upward trajectory to carry them into the tournament.
Route to the finals
Under Halilhodžić, Japan played a defensive, counter-attacking based game which worked brilliantly in their Asian qualifying groups.
The second round stage saw them top Group E comfortably with seven wins and a draw from their eight matches.
While this group featured a Syrian side who went on to impress in the next round, Singapore, Afghanistan and Cambodia proved relatively straight-forward and the Blue Samurai kept an impressive eight clean sheets from their fixtures.
With the third round group containing a harder set of opponents, Japan still managed to top their table.
Qualification was sealed with a 2-0 win over Australia in their penultimate match, although their final outing saw Saudi Arabia inflict a second defeat on them following an earlier loss to the United Arab Emirates.
Nishino named his 23-man squad with widely expected additions, but fielded a relatively new formation for the Japanese in their game against Ghana.
The only questionable choice came in the exclusion of Shoya Nakajima, a midfielder who has just enjoyed an impressive season in Portugal with Portimonense.
The wing-backs provided the main support for Yuya Osako, the lone forward in their lineup, who was deployed to make use of his aerial ability and strength.
While it looks like Keisuke Honda will feature in the starting lineup, the 31-year-old playmaker currently at Mexican side Pachuca is unlikely to have enough stamina to play every minute for the Blue Samurai, which will see him rotate with Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki behind Osako.
Key Player: Makoto Hasebe
Balance is going to be the key for Japan this summer, something their team is still searching for under their new manager. The midfield, therefore, is the critical part of the team which needs to function well to provide this.
With Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s defensive midfielder, Toshihiro Aoyama, missing out through injury, Hasebe is the main midfield anchor in the squad.
Having been deployed in the centre of Japan’s three centre-backs against Ghana, it’s possible that he will quite literally be used as the main link between defence and midfield.
Hasebe was guilty of conceding possession cheaply on at least three separate occasions in the first half alone, something which will need to be greatly improved going forward.
If he can adapt to his relatively new role in the team, Hasebe could well prove to be the player who helps make the Blue Samurai tick as an effective team though.
The fact that he’s also the team captain will mean many of the other players in the squad will be looking for him to provide an inspirational example.
Group H is one of the more interesting prospects at the first round stage this summer. With no clear favourite to top the group, each game will be equally important and potentially decisive in their campaign.
The opening match on June 19th pits them against Colombia, a team who narrowly claimed qualification and are struggling to find consistency themselves.
Senegal then Poland are the opponents who will seal Japan’s fate, both carrying their own threats, but both providing winnable challenges.
Because of this, Japan’s fate firmly lies in their own control. If they can come close to playing at their expected levels, Japan should have enough to do well in this setting.
While qualification looks to be hanging in the balance to progress through the group stages, Japan could well find themselves surprising people due to their effective attack.
Defensive frailties remain their biggest problem, but they still have time to clear up the positional confusion which blighted their match against Ghana. They could well click into gear to qualify.
However, if they do make it into the knock-out round a meeting with either Belgium or England is likely to be waiting for them which could prove too high an obstacle to overcome.
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