FIFA World Cup Prospectus: Japan
By Young Kim
Football.com will countdown the remaining time leading up to the World Cup with a 32-day preview of each team that will be participating. For those of you who want to know each team inside and out, the 32-Day 2014 FIFA World Cup Prospectus is the World Cup preview.
Group D: Uruguay
Group G: United States
Nickname: Samurai Blue
Previous World Cups: 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010
FIFA Ranking: 47
How Did They Get Here?
They easily topped their qualifying group in the fourth round of the AFC World Cup qualifiers, making easy work out of Australia, Oman, Jordan, and Iraq.
Opponents: Ivory Coast (6/14), Greece (6/19), Columbia (6/24)
Finish in Group? Second
Why finish in Second?
Japan’s key strength has always been about speed and cohesion. It takes an organized defensive effort to shut down the Japanese midfield, something that Ivory Coast lacks. Greece would have trouble as well given their lack of speed. The Samurai Blue understands that the ball moves faster than the players, so they always run the ball up the pitch in a compact formation as they keep sharing the ball. While Columbia stand to be a threat, Greece and Ivory Coast shouldn’t be a problem for the Japanese. Even if Japan’s defense isn’t so great, in the group matches the greater offense always come out on top.
Grading each position:
EIji Kawashima is probably one of the best keepers in all of Asia due to the fact that he’s the only one in a European team. While Kawashima has cat-like reflexes and has a keen sense of positioning, what sets him apart from other keepers is his ruggedness. Although he stands at the same height (185 cm) as every other keeper, Kawashima plays with such confidence that he can make himself seem bigger to opposing attackers than he already appears. He’s not the best keeper in the world, but most countries participating in the tournament wish they could have a keeper of his caliber.
Aside from Southampton’s Maya Yoshida, Japan does not have another defender who stands above (180 cm). But in spite of their lack of height, the Japanese make it up by applying heavy pressure on their marks. The Samurai Blue has a rich pool of fullbacks, with Yuto Nagatomo of Inter Milan and Atsuto Uchida of Schalke 04 in the starting XI. Guided by the veteran Yasuyuki Konno, the Japanese will look to annoy and break up incoming attacks with their speed and discipline. They might lose in the air, but they will look to prevent from getting in position to do so. Don’t take it the wrong way though. Japan is not a world beater in defending the ground game; they’re just good.
This is where Japan dominates their group. They are likely to opt for the 4-5-1 formation and they’ll want to beat their opponents with quick ball movement and possession. They have the perfect personnel to execute their plan, starting with FC Nurnberg’s Makoto Hasebe screening the backline and veteran Yasuhito Endo controlling the ball from the middle. Set piece dynamo Keisuke Honda will be playing the attacking midfield role alongside Shinji “Play-a-Maker” Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki. Japan also has budding young star Hiroshi Kiyotake who might start or come off the bench at crucial moments to provide a much-needed spark. Although Japan has been struggling in their latest friendlies, history shows that this team can perform in big games. Their cohesion with one another is key to becoming the dangerous team that the world fears.
Shinji Okazaki can play up top, given his goal-scoring pedigree at FSV Mainz 05, or Japan can opt to play the in-form Yuya Osako. Okazaki is experienced and is a lethal scorer but lacks the ideal height to play center forward. Osako, on the other hand, has decent height (182 cm), but doesn’t have the reputation or skillset like Okazaki. It really will depend on who is in better shape entering the World Cup, which is quite worrisome given their form in recent friendlies. Considering how Japan loves to play with pace and on the ground, a clinical finisher like Okazaki would suffice.
Alberto Zaccheroni has done a brilliant job with Japan thus far. Since taking over in 2010, he led the Samurai Blue to the 2011 Asian Cup title and made them the first Asian country to qualify for this year’s World Cup. So far he has been living up to his expectations as coach; however, ever since the team qualified, performance has not been consistent. They lost all their matches in the 2013 Confederation Cup and are coming off an unconvincing 1-0 win over Cyprus. Given his experience as a Serie A coach, he can certainly calm down the nerves of the Japanese media and put out a solid result for Japan.
How can they win the World Cup?
Japan just has to get streaky and emerge out of Group C in first place with their juggernaut midfield. Once they enter the knockout stages, they should maintain their tempo and play the ball on the ground. Teamwork is a vital key to their success. They also can’t afford to make any defensive blips and do whatever they can from allowing their opponents to effectively play the ball in the air. The Japanese might be quick but they aren’t athletic.
What’s There to like about Japan?
Aside from being the biggest technology hub in the world, Japan boasts beautiful scenery like Mount Fujiyama. Japan also has a wide variety of delicious dishes and snacks like pork ramen and curry rice. Oh yeah, they have this thing called sushi and tempura in case you don’t know.
Japan announced that Pikachu, the mascot of the popular video-game franchise Pokemon, will be the official mascot of the Japanese national football team. What followed was a mass marketing of Pokemon/Japanese Soccer merchandise that is worth collecting. How Kawaii is that?
Japan did not make significant changes to their standard blue home kit and white away kit. However, they did put stripes shooting out of the shirt’s emblem to signify sunrays, an allusion to the country’s nickname “The Land of the Rising Sun.”