Japan is the best team in Asia, and it's not even close. Part of the reason they are the best is because they might be the closest thing to Spain's tiki-taka seen anywhere on the international stage.
With a combination of a buzzing pressing game and airtight touches, Japan's a dangerous matchup. That said, can vaguely resembling one of the greatest national teams ever assembled cut it?
Maybe. Probably. Japan will certainly play some of the most attractive soccer at this World Cup, and have enough talent to escape their group stage, but the team's success will come down to its ability to complete simple tasks like, say, winning headers or just not giving up too many corner kicks in the first place.
Japan is making its fifth consecutive World Cup appearance after debuting in 1998. The Samurai Blue made the World Cup knockouts in 2002 and 2010, lifted the Asian Cup in 2011 and played some hell-raising—albeit winless—soccer at last year's Confederations Cup. Any team that puts three past Italy in a meaningful match should have your attention.
This is a top-heavy roster, it's also one full of players that could make you look really smart among your friends if you pick them to tear up the wide-open Group C. But Japan is capable of shredding each team in it.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Defenders: Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United)
Forwards: Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F-Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich)
FIFA World Ranking
Player To Watch
Keisuke Honda, Attacking Midfielder
Japan has other stars–other playmakers even. Hell, Shinji Kagawa wears the No. 10. But Kagawa is relegated to the wing for the same reason Honda is central to Japan's success.
Other players switch fields, positions or spots on the bench. Very few are given the license to change a team's entire shape because, effectively, he feels like it. But in an increasingly individualized age, Honda makes the players around him better—even when forced out of position by his own brilliance.
Honda does what he wants. Sometimes, he drops off deeper into midfield, shifting Japan into a diamond or box midfield. Other times, he shades left on the ball, making Kagawa a more central figure. Doing so gives Shinji Okazaki more room up front, and gives more space for Atsuto Uchida to overlap from the right back spot.
Every opponent the Samurai Blue meets this summer will try to bully Japan. But like so much that Japan does, it starts and all but ends with Honda. He'll be the first one Colombia, Greece and the Ivory Coast look to give as good as he gets.
If he can take the punishment, keep orchestrating attacks, and pull defenders out of position, Japan could walk the group. But if he can't, it'll probably mean an early trip home.
Japan has three core problems it must tactically confront if the Asian champions are to progress to the Round of 16.
The team's technique will largely patch over these issues. In the World Cup's most wide-open group, however, failure to deal with all three makes an early exit a real possibility.
1. Flattening forward
When entering the attacking third, Japan has this tendency to spread as many as four or five of its best attackers across the 18-yard box, all towing the offside line.
Japan's movement and positional versatility when going forward pins opposing back lines to their own 18-yard box. When they press forward agains the opposing back line, a gulf opens up in the center of the pitch which Japanese players like Yasuhito Endo can then use to tee off on goal under minimal pressure.
If Endo decides to pass it forward, the opposing 18-yard box can pack full of bodies, but Japan's short passing game is strong enough to circumvent all but the staunchest of defenses.
2. Minding the gap
Every team has to pay special attention to the distance between its midfield and center backs. Because Japan controls so much of the ball, though, its of extra importance for Samurai Blue.
At times, it's almost as if Japan becomes so accustomed to having the ball, dominating opponents in speed, tight spaces and ultimately on the ball, that it collectively forgets the danger in the other team having the ball 30 yards from goal.
Midfielders and Endo and Makoto Hasebe don't track back well, and often, this leaves their center backs outnumbered or stranded. This problem becomes exacerbated when Japan's full backs, who push high up the pitch, are caught out of position.
3. The team is not tall
Japan has team speed and swarms on the ball in transition with a clear understanding of where opponents are most vulnerable in possession. (Don't look now Japan, but your Italian manager is showing.)
That combination of pace and timing neutralizes most of most teams' offensive advantages, but not height. Only one of Japan's starting defenders in its qualification-clinching win against Australia stood taller than 5-foot-9. That was 6-foot-2 Maya Yoshida, who's made all of 11 appearances for Southampton since.
The Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia all have bigger, stronger attackers who will dominate in the air to win possession for their teams and create aerial chances on goal.
Consequently, Japan will have to play for the second ball. Every team will try to take advantage of the Samurai Blue in the air. Zaccheroni's best bet to minimize free kick exploitation is to drop Hasebe into a Lucas Leiva-esque clean-up/transitional role, building attacks slightly more carefully to prevent quick, long, counters.
Japan will then just have to balance its speed of attack to ensure it's not cutting off its vertically challenged nose to spite its robust slide rule-passing face.
Group C Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 14, 9 p.m.: Ivory Coast vs. Japan at Arena Pernambuco
June 19, 6 p.m.: Japan vs. Greece at Estádio das Dunas
June 24, 4 p.m.: Japan vs. Colombia at Arena Pantanal
Complete Group C Previews
Top image by Jim Cooke; photos via Getty.