Japan: World Cup 2014 Team Preview
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
Japan became the first team to qualify for the competition when Keisuke Honda scored an injury to secure a 1-1 draw against Australia. That late strike ensured they finished the group with a four point lead, and they suffered only one defeat in their entire qualifying campaign.
Manager Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan’s 4th manager in their five World Cup visits; is considered a legend in Italy, having managed through their leagues for 27 years. He took over the Japanese national team in 2010, introducing a hybrid 4-2-3-1/3-4-3 formation, looking to utilize Japan’s underrated attacking talent.
Whilst in Italy, Zaccheroni managed both Milan clubs, Juventus and Lazio. During this time, he won the Serie A title in 1998-1999, with an AC Milan side that contained George Weah, Leonardo and Oliver Bierhoff. So he is a manager with obvious pedigree.
For Japan to better their last-16 appearance from the previous World Cup, Zaccheroni must make full use of Blue Samurai’s hugely creative forward players and the dynamism of flying fullbacks Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida.
And that was something evident despite finishing bottom of their group in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Japan received praise for their flowing, attacking style – most notably evident in their 4-3 loss to Italy, where they conceded an 89th minute winner.
They have talent to trouble most teams and a quarter final appearance is not beyond them given a favourable draw.
Key Player – Shinji Kagawa
The Japanese talisman has been criminally underused for Manchester United, having signed in 2012 but is starting to see more and more game time under David Moyes.
Whilst at Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa was named in the Bundesliga Team of the Season; and as of last year, he was also named as the Asian International Footballer of the Year. Along with the set-piece wizard, Keisuke Honda, Kagawa is Japan’s main attacking outlet, combining wonderful vision, intelligent movement, and exceptional technique.
The former Dortmund man has gained a reputation of retaining superb composure and decision-making, as well as being able to play in central midfield, on the wing and as a classic No.10.
But he is at his sparkling best ‘in the hole’ and under Moyes he is looking to cement his place in the first team, in that position. For Japan, he and Honda drift between wide-right and central attacking midfield areas, making both players notoriously difficult to pick up.