Japan's World Cup predictions
After four years of waiting, the time has come. Another World Cup is here, and our bloggers across all 32 competing countries have each predicted the fate that awaits their team. The country's Outlook gives a general view of its situation ahead of the tournament, while Pitfalls takes a look at any potential problems. Each blogger will also predict the top scorer and breakout star and suggest how far that nation can go.
The year leading up to the World Cup was not particularly kind to the Samurai Blue. High-profile players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda found themselves marginalised at their club teams while other established core players like Maya Yoshida, Atsuto Uchida and Makoto Hasebe picked up injuries that left fans nervously hanging on to every bit of news about their rehabilitation process.
On a positive note, the failure of Japan's defense to withstand world-class pressure at last year's Confederations Cup finally convinced Alberto Zaccheroni to make some long overdue adjustments. There are still problems in the defensive unit, especially when Zac overly relies on his veteran favourites, but at least he managed to locate some younger prospects and got them into the mix before final preparations got underway.
In an ideal world, Japan would have another two or three weeks before the start of World Cup play -- time for Uchida, Hasebe and Yoshida to get back to 100 percent, time for Honda and Kagawa to polish off all the rust and time for the newcomers to settle in at key defensive positions. As it is, the team may still be less than complete when the Ivory Coast contest kicks off, but at least the major problems will have been addressed.
The upside of Japan's situation is that they should improve with each passing day, and nobody in the squad is in danger of falling victim to fatigue. Preparation has gone well enough to make most people cautiously optimistic, but there are still shortcomings that Zaccheroni should have addressed sooner. All fans can do now is hope that he sorts everything out in the final few days before June 14.
All 32 team previews and predictions
Brazil | Cameroon | Croatia | Mexico
Australia | Netherlands | Chile | Spain
Colombia | Greece | Ivory Coast | Japan
Costa Rica | England | Italy | Uruguay
Ecuador | France | Honduras | Switzerland
Argentina | Bosnia | Iran | Nigeria
Germany | Ghana | Portugal | USA
Algeria | Belgium | Russia | South Korea
The biggest problem is that, at least in my view, Japan's theoretical best XI is not even in Brazil. Only half of this can be described as someone's fault. In football, young players are always emerging to push out aging predecessors, and the limited time available for national team coaches makes it hard for them to bring in new blood. As a young footballing country, this is particularly true for Japan. However, there is a clear sense that Zaccheroni missed opportunities to edge some aging veterans out of the picture. I suspect that these players earned his loyalty early in the four-year cycle, and he now finds it hard to let them go.
This has been a recurring problem for Japan. Players who impress the new coach in the Asian Cup (in the first year of the coach's tenure) can earn his abiding trust and often remain in place for the full four-year cycle even if they are no longer the best ones available. This was a key factor in Zico and Japan's disappointing run in 2006. There may be no way around this recurring problem. As a U.S. defense secretary once noted, "You go to war with the army you have. They're not the army you might want or wish to have." The fact remains that there are at least four or five players in Japan who could contribute as much, or more, than the players Zaccheroni brought with him to Brazil.
The player who is in the best form at the moment is clearly Shinji Okazaki. He performed well in the Bundesliga this season, and though he fills a more withdrawn position for Japan, the style of play the Samurai Blue employ suits his style well. On the other hand, most opposing teams will have seen his 15 goals for Mainz and will be wary of his ability to penetrate suddenly and get off quick shots. It is possible that one of the other players in the attacking unit will benefit from this excessive focus on Okazaki and Honda. If Okazaki is kept under wraps by opposing defenses, my money is on either Yuya Osako or Yoichiro Kakitani to top the scoring list.
With Japan, it is hard to choose a real wild card because the most obvious choices are no longer a surprise to anyone. Yuto Nagatomo will surely be a key contributor (I consider him the best player on the team), but by now his prowess is well-known to people even outside the Serie A fan base. Similarly, Okazaki is a known quantity for Japan. He should have a good World Cup, but I do not expect anyone to be surprised.
One player who often manages to fly under the radar despite his obvious quality is Uchida. Schalke 04 fans are well aware of the quality that the soft-spoken wingback brings to the game. He was voted to the Bundesliga best team despite missing half the season due to injury. But his willowy build and features, which seem more appropriate to some boy-idol singing group than a football team, often cause him to be overlooked by people who do not follow the Ruhr Derby. Despite transfer rumours from Arsenal, he is happy in Germany and will not be going anywhere after the World Cup. Nevertheless, I expect him to greatly boost his market value this summer with a solid performance.
PREDICTION: Group stage
Preparations have gone well enough to make me somewhat optimistic that the finish line will not be crossed at the Pantanal Arena in Cuiabá, where Japan face Colombia on June 24. However, even the keenest of tipsters are struggling to choose the winner of this closely contested group, and I am a cautious gambler even when the odds are much more certain. All I can say is that, like most Samurai Blue supporters, I am cautiously optimistic that Japan will impress viewers this summer -- if not with their final position in the table, at least with the beauty of their football.