Japan are no longer the newcomers on the big stage. Having qualified for every world cup since their first appearance in France 98 Japan are starting to stamp themselves as an established World Cup nation. Whether they are classed as an established real competitor is debatable. Despite laying hands on glory in the Asian cup four times, the Samurai Blue is yet to unearth real success in the World Cup.
The second round being the pinnacle of four campaigns, seems to be Japans limit. Failing to win a game in 1998 saw them crash out the group. When co-hosting in 2002 the likes of Inamoto helped lead the team into the shrouded unknown of the round of 16. Japan lost to Turkey. The seemingly good progress of previously progressing from the group stage was shadowed considerably by a tough group preventing further progress for the Asian champions in 2006. Then in 2010; Japan progressed through the group again, only to lose on penalties. The short history of Japans life at the World Cup is hardly overwhelming however the Asian champions are not to be underestimated.
52% of Japans players compete domestically in Europe while the rest all play in Japan itself. This equal spread of international talent brings both extra depth but also increased ambitions. Okazaki: “Japan has many players active abroad now, some at the top clubs. Our fans expect success”. Star striker Okazaki plays abroad himself, winning the Bundesliga’s most improved player this season. Honda is also adamant is nation can go further than the Japanese have ever ventured. “Anything can happen at a World Cup. We’re good enough now to reach the quarter-finals.” With ambitions high but the worlds expectations clearly low, Japan could pull off more than a surprise and easily cripple opponents.
Since Zaccheroni’s management began in 2010 the Blue Samurai have acquired the perception they are lacking a killer instinct but remain technically supreme. Nevertheless under Zaccheroni Japan play attractive football in a common 4-2-3-1. Honda, Kagawa and Kiyotake pass through the middle while the likes of Endo and Hasebe dictate the play and tempo behind. Since the last World Cup Zaccheroni has continued to develop Japan into a highly organised tough team that are both comfortable and deadly on the ball. Ivory Coast, Colombia and Greece will struggle to outdo Japan on possession. Japan can also unsettle opponents with their fast paced high pressing, especially the leaky defence of Ivory Coast. Yet despite the technical qualities of Japan, they sometimes lack the clinical touch in front of goal and the core strength to stay fresh for a long tournament. The commanding figures of Greece at the back are likely to tower above the Japanese, particularly in set pieces where Zaccheroni’s men struggle. However any unlearnt lessons of the past must be soaked up if the master plan is to run smoothly for Honda and co.
South American familiar Colombians are the favourites to top group C but Japan has the quality to advance and gain momentum ahead of the knockout stages. If Japan does go through the group they will most likely play Italy, England or Uruguay. Any of these will be a challenge for Japan but they must overcome if they are to reach new heights and reach the quarter finals.
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