Can Japan rise to the challenge in Brazil?

by Andy Harte

Honda, Kagawa, JapanA very warm welcome will be exchanged to the Japanese team this summer in Brazil as their showing at the Confederations Cup last summer was one to be excited about. Despite losing all three of their games at the tournament, Japan put up a brave and entertaining fight as they impressed the Brazilian crowd with their slick passing and fast movement.

The Japanese had a big part to play in the best game of the tournament against Italy, as despite letting a two goal lead slip and eventually losing 4-3, they still managed to attempt over 300 passes in the opposition half, a stat only bettered by world champions Spain. The side, managed by Italian, Alberto Zaccheroni will again be hoping to impress the millions watching with their attractive brand of football.

Japan were the first to team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup meaning it was the third successive time that they have been the first nation in the world to qualify for the tournament. A last-minute Keisuke Honda penalty to level the match up against Australia meant that Japan finished on top of the group ahead of the Socceroos. Japan scored 16 goals and conceded five whilst topping AFC group B which also included Oman, Jordan and Iraq.

You wouldn’t usually associate a nations star players with sitting on the bench at club level but that is certainly the case with Japan. AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa are the stars of the Japanese team but haven’t been given much of a look in at their clubs this year. Honda has only competed 90 minutes three times in his 12 games at AC Milan after his publicised move from CSKA Moscow whereas Kagawa has only started 13 times for United. Both however will be relied on heavily at the World Cup as Japan will hope their stars lack of game time during the year won’t affect them too much. Japan’s other stars, however, haven’t found it as difficult to get games under their belt this season with FSV Mainz’ 05 Shinji Okazaki and Cereo Osaka’s Yoichiro Kakitani finding themselves as regular starters at their clubs.

Honda will be hoping to bring the form he showed at the last World Cup in 2010 to Brazil this summer. He was named Man of the Match in two group games, scoring twice including a special free kick against Denmark. The 27-year-old attacking midfielder recently scored in friendly matches against Belgium, Holland, Ghana and Uruguay and also scored five goals in qualifying. He is very assured and calm in possession which is something is team mates will be relying on to progress from their group.

Despite being somewhat of an outcast at Manchester United this season, Shinji Kagawa never fails to impress when called upon by his national side. His recent two goal haul against New Zealand meant that he brought his tally up to 17 in 54 appearances which isn’t bad for an out-and-out playmaker. The two goals showed that his lack of game time hasn’t slowed him down and the 25-year-old is looking to continue to provide a goal scoring threat at the tournament. His omission at United is seen as a huge surprise in Asia, especially considering his performances for Borussia Dortmund and the fact that in March of last year, Kagawa became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League.

With 21 goals in 34 games for Cerezo Osaka last season, Yoichoro Kakitani seemed certain for a place at the World Cup in Brazil but his recent showings haven’t lived up to the expectations that were attached to him after some fine performances in the J-League. Kakitani only has one goal in ten outings this season in the league but has managed to chip in with four goals in six Asian Champions League games. His four goals for the national team last year should see him picked for the tournament and he will be hoping to show the talent that had the likes of Arsenal interested in him.

The pacy Yugo Nagatomo signed for Italian giants Inter Milan in 2011 and has been a regular in the side ever since. This season he has made 18 appearances in the league and has chipped in with five goals. He likes to get up and down the wing at quick pace and Japan will be relying on that experience he has gained from 66 international caps to help his wingers and fellow defenders to create and block chances.

Masato Morishige has gone from strength to strength recently and will be hoping that his performances can repay Alberto Zaccheroni who called up the defender to the national side for the first time in four and a half years last July. With 32 goals conceded in 17 games, the 26-year-old will be playing a big part in trying to stop the goals flying in against Japan.

Defensive frailties and mistakes haven’t been too far away from Japan recently but they will be looking to Hertha Berlin’s Hajime Hosogai, FC Toyko’s Masato Morishige and Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo to clear things up at the back against some dangerous opposition in Brazil.

Arguably, one of Hertha Berlin’s best players this season, Hosogai usually operates in a defensive midfield role but may be asked to fill in at centre back for his national team this summer. Southampton’s Maya Yoshida hasn’t got much game time this season due to an injury meaning Hosagai may have to help in sewing up the Japanese defence.

Japan should provide some entertaining football and will be involved in some interesting games but on paper they should also be looking at a group stage exit. Paired with 2004 European Cup winners Greece, tournament dark horses Colombia and Yaya Toure led Ivory Coast, this group may prove too tough for the Japanese to advance from.

However, Brazil is home to a large population of Japanese people and after their style of play was lapped up by the locals at the Confederations Cup last summer, Japan will have a lot of vocal support at the tournament. Also having Pikachu as their mascot has to be seen as a possibility that anything could happen this summer in Brazil.

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