Japan have turned World Cup qualification into an exact science.
For a third tournament in a row, the Blue Samurai have punched their ticket to the finals before anyone else—their 1-1 draw at home to Australia on Tuesday confirming their presence in Brazil more than a year before most teams will begin arriving there.
Coming into the match in Saitama, Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni had told FIFA.com he hoped to seal qualification “in front of our own supporters,” and thanks to a 91st-minute penalty conversion by Keisuke Honda that cancelled out Tommy Oar’s opener of just nine minutes before, they were able to accomplish just that.
“We did not give up until the end and we finally got this result,” remarked Honda via FIFA.com after the final whistle, adding, “I felt the pressure but I took the penalty full of confidence, and I made it."
Honda, who plays his club football at Russian champions CSKA Moscow, is just one of a sizable contingent of Europe-based players in Zaccheroni’s squad, and following the draw with Australia, he singled out that reality as one of the reasons why Japan could be a side to be reckoned with at the 2014 World Cup.
“Now so many Japanese players are playing in European leagues; some of them are playing for big clubs," he said via FIFA.com. "Those players have shown what they learned through European league experiences...That’s been shown in our latest results.”
Japan will be participating in their fifth consecutive World Cup finals next year, and in two of the previous four, they managed to progress to the Round of 16. Nevertheless, they remain an unknown quantity in many parts of the world, something that’s no doubt due, at least in part, to the time zone in which they play.
Following is a quick look at the Japanese national team, their manager and a few things to look for when they contest both the upcoming Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup.
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Appointed following the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 60-year-old brought to Japan a curriculum vitae that included the 1999 Scudetto with AC Milan.
He was able to add the 2011 AFC Asian Cup to his list of accomplishments in 2011 and now can add World Cup qualification to his name as well.
“I think that when we focus and perform at our usual level,” he told FIFA.com, “with the star players we have we can put pressure on any team.”
Formation: Against Australia, Zaccheroni used a 4-2-3-1 setup with captain Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) and all-time appearance leader Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka) anchoring the midfield.
Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) was the starting goalkeeper.
Key Strength: Playmaking
Japan was one of the more enjoyable sides to watch at the 2012 Olympic Games (where they beat Spain in Glasgow), and while only a handful of players from that squad are involved in World Cup qualifying, quick passing and cultured buildup play has become something of a Japanese hallmark.
Honda and Kagawa are the key playmakers in Zaccheroni’s side, but Endo is capable of involving himself in the passing game from a deeper position as well.
With Uchida and Nagatomo adding an element of width to the attack, Japan can give an opponent several different looks over the course of a match.
Noticeable Weakness: Central Defense
Zaccheroni had some injuries to deal with on Tuesday, but nevertheless his side was once again unable to keep a clean sheet.
Japan prefer to have the ball, and when they’re working with it, they can find the back of the net against almost anyone.
But when dispossessed, they are vulnerable, as demonstrated by their current record of one clean sheet from their last seven matches.
Japan are in a tough group at the Confederations Cup—it includes Brazil, Italy and Mexico.
Getting out of that bracket would be a massive achievement, albeit one they’re unlikely to realize.
At the World Cup, however, they’ll once again be expecting to get into the Round of 16. Then they’ll hope to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in their history.
Japan aren’t World Cup contenders just yet, but like Zaccheroni said, on their day they can cause problems for just about anyone.