Japan Preview – The Last Samurais?
World Cup 2014
Japan, under Italian coach Alberto Zacheroni, look in decent shape to qualify from a tough pool of teams in Group C.
Although they qualified for the World Cup with ease, it is a sign of the high expectations in Japanese football that consecutive friendly defeats against Serbia and Belarus last autumn had some pundits calling for coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s head.
Their three defeats in the Confederations Cup last year was also a concern, but a 2-2 draw with Holland, followed by an excellent 3-2 victory over Belgium ended the speculation over Zaccheroni’s future and showed what the team is capable of.
As the top-ranked Asian side, Japan earned a bye to the AFC Third Qualifying Round and made heavy weather of their four-team group, losing to North Korea and Uzbekistan before sneaking through in second place.
They were much more impressive in their final qualifying group. They lost to Jordan and dropped points against Australia, but won five of their eight games, which was enough to top the section. They were the first team to qualify for the World Cup, a tournament in which they have been ever present since their first appearance in 1998
Japan’s strength lies in the fluidity of their attacking style, made possible by an exciting array of midfield talent including Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda of Milan and Yoichiro Kakitani, who could well end up with one of Europe’s top clubs next season.
The buccaneering forays of full-backs Yuto Nagamoto and Atsuto Uchida are fun to watch, but they can sometimes leave an ordinary defence exposed, and whether their technically adept midfielders are incisive enough to create enough chances for the squad’s only prolific forward, Shinji Okazaki, remains to be seen.
All three of their Group C fixtures will be tough, but the first against Ivory Coast is the most important. They will be up against a physically strong side that will pack the centre of the pitch, but if Japan can withstand the hard pressing of a midfield led by Yaya Toure and find space to play their normal game, that will give them enormous confidence going into their eminently winnable second tie against Greece.
Such is the open nature of Group C that you can make a case for Japan winning all three of their games, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they went home without picking up a point either.
On paper, they are the third best side in the group, but if they can stick to their high tempo passing game and find a way to turn possession into goals, they are capable of reaching the second round, most likely as runners-up.
That would put them on course to play Italy or possibly Uruguay and I can’t see them getting past either of those sides to reach the last eight so the sensible bet is to back them at 4/5 in the World Cup Group C – To Qualify market.