The Japanese national team is built around an extremely solid core group of 30-somethings who have all proven themselves at the highest levels of European soccer. This is probably their last shot at World Cup glory, though they have a steep road ahead of them if they want to qualify past Colombia, Poland, and Senegal. They are comfortably the lowest-ranked team in Group H, and if they are going to pull off an upset or two, it will be because of their experience as a group. Hopefully, Shinji Kagawa has learned a thing or two from America’s Perfect Wonderteen.
Japan have qualified for six straight World Cups, and all they have to show for it is two Round of 16 exits. They do, however, have four Asian Cup titles, and the Samurai Blue have been more or less the best team in Asia over the past decade or so. The qualification process was relatively smooth. Japan didn’t concede a goal in the first group stage while scoring 27, and comfortably topped a tough group in the final round of qualifying. The strongest part of their team was the defense, thanks in part to the rigid disciplinary style of Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić. However, Halilhodžić was fired in April, and Japan have played just three games under new man Akira Nishino.
Nishino has said he wants to bring forth the goals, and after going five halves without one, Japan went nuts and dropped four on Paraguay in the second half of their friendly last week. Nishino initially had Kagawa out of the starting lineup, though he’s since reclaimed his spot as the Number 10. Kagawa is part of a core that also includes Yūto Nagatomo, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Eiji Kawashima, and Makoto Hosebe. Nishino also has a surprisingly deep roster of squad players to put around those veterans. Like most of their AFC counterparts, Japan are the weakest team in their group, but they absolutely stand a chance of springing an upset.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kōsuke Nakamura (Kashiwa)
Defenders: Yūto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa), Wataru Endo (Urawa), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gōtoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shōji, Naomichi Ueda (Kashima)
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi, (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yūya Ōsako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Mūto (Mainz)
Japan will rely on Kagawa to create most of their chances and run their attack. It’s a role he’s played for the national team since his debut as a 19-year-old in 2008, and while he has played out on either wing for Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, he is at his best when he plays as a creative central midfielder. Kagawa’s greatest strengths are his positioning and his passing. He tends to find the right channels to occupy on the break, and he knows where to be in order to best set up his strikers. Adept at quick incisive passes, wide balls, and crosses, Kagawa is perhaps the finest creative player in Japanese soccer history.
He’s also got an eye for goal as well, which the occasionally anemic Japan attack will need. It seems like Kagawa has been around forever, but he’s only 29. Still, while he’s succeeded with Dortmund twice and washed out at United, he hasn’t really shown off his talent with Japan. Kagawa was left off the 2010 World Cup roster, then barely did anything as the Samurai Blue crashed out in Brazil. He can truly cement himself as a legend if he can help his team escape this tough group.
Europa League-bound Spanish club Real Betis were so excited about signing Inui this summer that they announced the move with the bizarre Dragon Ball Z video you see above you. Inui’s a nifty winger who can play on either side but will likely line up to Kagawa’s left in Russia. Japan will play at least two teams who are determined to have more of the ball, so Inui will probably get a few chances to show off his devastating speed. For an example of said speed, I direct you to the banger he scored on Villarreal last season.
Inui’s got some solid dribbling skills, and like any left wing player worth a shit, he loves to cut in on his right foot and seek out the goal. A brace against Paraguay probably solidified his spot in the starting lineup, and Nishino better hope Inui keeps up his habit of scoring great goals against the world’s best teams.
Well, nobody knows for sure, since their manager has only been on the job for two months. Nishino experimented with a 3-4-3 formation against Ghana, which didn’t work, before opting for an orthodox 4-2-3-1 in subsequent games. That seems like Japan’s best lineup, with Kagawa pulling strings in the middle and the handsome Yoshinori Mūto on the opposite wing from Inui. Strikers Shinji Okazaki and Yūya Ōsako are both skilled at hold up play, and positionally speaking, the pieces of Japan’s attack fit together well.
Makoto Hosebe will lock down one of the defensive midfielder spots, and Nishino will likely pair him up with either Hotaru Yamaguchi or Gaku Shibasaki. Right back Hiroki Sakai is one of Japan’s better players, though thankfully, the knee injury he suffered at the end of Marseille’s season doesn’t seem like it will keep him from playing in Russia. Large Southampton center back Maya Yoshida will anchor the center of the defense, and 35-year-old Eiji Kawashima will keep watch over the goal. It’s not a flashy setup, but it is a solid one.
June 19, 8 a.m.: Japan vs. Colombia at Mordovia Arena
June 24, 11 a.m.: Japan vs. Senegal at Ekaterinburg Arena
June 28, 10 a.m.: Japan vs. Poland at Volgograd Arena