Japan have named their 23-man squad for this year's World Cup in Brazil, with coach Alberto Zaccheroni springing a couple of surprises ahead of the summer's festivities.
The Japanese suffered just one loss during their final group participation heading into the tournament. A 2-1 loss away at Jordan, plus two 1-1 draws with Australia, were the only blemishes on an otherwise solid record for a side that can be expected to remain competitive during the showpiece event.
Zaccheroni's side are preparing to take on Greece, Colombia and the Ivory Coast in a favourable draw. Although each of these teams will pose real danger to Japan's chances of making the knockout stages, the Asian representatives must be pleased to have escaped a clash with one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Let's take a look at the full squad, as revealed by Reuters and via Yahoo! Eurosport:
|GK||Eiji Kawashima||Standard Liege|
|GK||Shusaku Nishikawa||Urawa Reds|
|GK||Shuichi Gonda||FC Tokyo|
|DEF||Masato Morishige||FC Tokyo|
|DEF||Yasuyuki Konno||Gamba Osaka|
|DEF||Yuto Nagatomo||Inter Milan|
|DEF||Masahiko Inoha||Jubilo Iwata|
|MID||Yasuhito Endo||Gamba Osaka|
|MID||Keisuke Honda||AC Milan|
|MID||Shinji Kagawa||Manchester United|
|MID||Hotaru Yamaguchi||Cerezo Osaka|
|MID||Toshihiro Aoyama||Sanfrecce Hiroshima|
|MID||Manabu Saito||Yokohama F. Marinos|
|ATT||Yoichiro Kakitani||Cerezo Osaka|
|ATT||Yuya Osako||1860 Munich|
|ATT||Yoshito Okubo||Kawasaki Frontale|
Who's In, Who's Out?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Zaccheroni's squad is the recall of Kawasaki forward Yoshito Okubo. The experienced 31-year-old, who previously represented Mallorca and Wolfsburg in Europe, has certainly made the final squad on merit.
Okubo's eight goals in 12 J-League appearances, per WhoScored.com, have forced Zaccheroni into recalling the player who hasn't represented his nation in two years, noted by Reuters via Yahoo! Eurosport:
The stocky striker had featured only once during the Italian's four years in charge, a 45 minute outing in a 2012 friendly win over Iceland, despite playing all four matches at the last World Cup in South Africa under previous coach Takeshi Okada.
Toshihiro Aoyama of Sanfrecce Hiroshima will be another surprise attendee to the tournament. He has three appearances for the national side under his belt, per FIFA, and ousts the vastly more experienced Hajime Hosogai, who currently plays in the Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin.
Zaccheroni's squad features 12 players who represent clubs outside of Japan. Impressively, the intriguing selection is crammed full of individuals who are both experienced and looking to progress on the world stage.
Players such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo will need to draw upon their European experiences if Japan are to advance through their group. It is extremely healthy for the J-League that almost half the squad is currently based in the national league, as scouts will undoubtedly watch on with intent.
Japan's starting XI works best when Zaccheroni can get his side playing a speedy game that is based on ball retention. This is a side that includes considerable attacking threats through the likes of Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake, both of whom will be key to maintaining possession and providing Japan with width.
Kagawa tweeted his delight at being included and outlined optimism surrounding the camp:
I am so thankful to be chosen to be in the World cup team. I wouldn't be here without the support from the supporters, family and staff.— SHINJI KAGAWA / 香川真司 (@S_Kagawa0317) May 12, 2014
I will throw everything that I have at the World cup and get the results. Everyone in Japan let fight together!!— SHINJI KAGAWA / 香川真司 (@S_Kagawa0317) May 12, 2014
Honda, who will sit behind Japan's main striker, is just as vital as Kagawa. The experienced AC Milan star joins the Manchester United man as the team's best passer, but importantly, Honda's set-piece skills could push Japan beyond their opponents in what are sure to be extremely competitive matches. Honda is the type of individual who can deliver a pinpoint corner or scream a free-kick into the top corner, indicating his form is pivotal.
The work-rate of Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida will help define Japan's shape. When Kagawa and Kiyotake drift in-field, which is likely to happen against teams who pack the centre, these two need to bomb up the flanks to provide a quick attacking outlet. They must also ensure no space is left in behind when Japan's opponents launch a counter-attack, highlighting the need for excellent cardio.
How far will Japan get in the 2014 World Cup?
Such a relentless output is going to be majorly difficult in the testing Brazil conditions. Zaccheroni's squad is versatile and has visited testing locations such as Jordan and Iran in recent times, but with many arriving on the back of the European league season, it will need to find extra reserves if Japan's speedy offensive style is to shine through.
Even so, Zaccheroni's men shouldn't be taken lightly. This is an accomplished, spirited and highly technical side that can spring a run to the tournament's latter stages with the right game plan. Individuals such as Kagawa will be key, but at their best, Japan's selection is greater than the sum of its parts.