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May 30, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Japan

Group C | Colombia | Greece | Ivory Coast


Team DNA

Manager Alberto Zaccheroni has slowly fine-tuned the Japanese team and personnel that almost reached the quarterfinals in 2010.

Some teams like to go wide and get behind the defence; but, first and foremost, Japan like to pass right through the middle. The Samurai Blue love to keep the ball and move it around at pace -- and with a team full of technically excellent players, they are often able to do just that.

Keisuke Honda plays in the hole behind the striker and makes the team tick in an attacking sense, linking up with Shinji Kagawa on his left and Shinji Okazaki to the right, with beautiful, intricate combination plays that will make a grown man weep. The team does sometime struggle to convert such plays into goals, however.

Team captain Makoto Hasebe sets the tempo in midfield with the two talented fullbacks getting forward as often as possible to add extra options. There are questions hanging over them about defensive lapses of concentration that will be answered one way or another over the next few weeks.

Starting scenarios

History

This is the fifth World Cup appearance for Japan. They reached the Round of 16 twice (2002, 2010) and finished ninth overall in both tournaments. In 2010 in South Africa, Japan pushed Paraguay to a penalty shootout, but lost and just missed out on a trip to the quarterfinals.

How they reached Brazil

For the third time running, Japan became the first team to book a World Cup berth. The scene was set in the final round of qualifying, as Japan kicked off with a 3-0 win against Oman followed by a 6-0 rout of Jordan. The Samurai Blue never relinquished the top spot. The only blip was a 2-1 loss in Jordan, which wasn't entirely unexpected. By then, it was a matter of when, and not if, Japan would qualify.

Despite missing Honda for a couple of games (knee injury), Kagawa and Okazaki were impressive, especially the latter, who played all but 20 minutes of the final round.

In the end, the only worry was that perhaps it was all a little too easy and Zaccheroni would have welcomed fiercer competition en route to Brazil. Some media pundits wanted a few more players to be given a go, but, all in all, it was a satisfactory campaign.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

In Group C, a victory against Colombia would be welcome, as Japan do not have the best of records against South American opponents (they lost all three matches at previous tournaments). But what comes next could be really interesting. What Japan have yet to do is to beat a genuine big team on the world stage. A trip to the Round of 16 could see a match against England or Italy -- either prestigious opponent would suffice.

Japan should have comfortably defeated Italy at the 2013 Confederations Cup, but lost 4-3. Righting that wrong would be a big step forward and welcomed by Zaccheroni. While there have been some impressive friendly results in recent years, Japan can only complete their journey to big-power status by beating a big power in a game that really matters.

Most important player

There are more famous faces and names further up the field, but Maya Yoshida could hold the key in Japan fulfilling their potential. The Samurai Blue Achilles' heel is the defence, especially the middle part of that backline. Bottom line: The defence has to hold firm, and much of that responsibility will be on the Southampton defender.

Comfortable on the ball, Yoshida has to show that he, alongside Yasuyuki Konno, are equally fine dealing with set pieces, high balls and fast attacks and ensuring that concentration levels stay high. Can Yoshida be the domineering and assertive defender that Japan has lacked since the 2010 duo of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka faded out of the picture? He has to be.

On attack, Honda and Kagawa are obviously important and dangerous, but Japan need Okazaki to carry his goal-scoring form for German club Mainz over to the World Cup.

Definition of success

A successful World Cup would be a place in the final eight, and perhaps beyond. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for a settled team that just missed out on the 2010 quarterfinals.

- Video: Japan odds in World Cup (Australia only)

The group, containing Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece, is navigable, but tough enough to challenge and ensure Japan are moving at a high gear by the knockout stage.

How far will Japan go?

The quarterfinals are a real possibility.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Shaka Hislop

Japan are a strong team, Creative and dynamic. Their pace of play is fantastic, and they're very quick going forward. With ninth-place finishes in 2002 and 2010, Japan will not be intimidated by anyone in group play.

Japan has a terrific midfield. The attacking midfielders - Honda, Kagawa and Ryoichi Maeda - combined for 13 goals in qualifying. The rest of the team really takes the creative lead of those players, especially Kagawa, who had good years with Manchester United, and Honda. The defence, a question mark after a poor Confederations Cup, allowed only eight goals in 14 matches in the final two rounds in Asia.

If they keep momentum from their qualification, Japan will be competitive.

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