Japan FIFA 2014 World Cup Team Guide
Japan's Samurai Blue enter the 2014 World Cup in good spirits. They are the best Asia has to offer and boast the best selection of players they have ever had at their disposal.
While they exited last summer's Confederations Cup without a win to their name, they severely troubled both Italy and Mexico. With a few fresh faces improving that side, there is reason for optimism this summer.
Drawn in a group devoid of traditional footballing heavyweights, there will be hope among Alberto Zaccheroni's side that they can at least match the country's best-ever performance in qualifying for the round of 16. Many believe that, if they can solve their defensive issues, they could go even further.
Whatever their results, Japan will stick to their firm belief in fast, attacking football. They have technically gifted players at their disposal and will be sure to entertain.
Just how far can their free-flowing approach to the game carry them?
Road to the Finals
Japan were the first team other than host Brazil to secure their attendance at this summer's finals, comfortably topping their AFC fourth-round qualifying group that also contained Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq.
To get to that stage, they also had to navigate stage three of the competition, finishing second in their group to Uzbekistan. In the end, though, there was little importance in the order in which progression was achieved.
Ultimately, despite passing up the opportunity to assure their place in Brazil with two fixtures to spare when defeated by Jordan, qualification was a mere stroll for Zaccheroni's side.
A 1-1 draw at home to Australia on the penultimate matchday, courtesy of a 90th-minute penalty from Keisuke Honda, eventually took them across the line. Victory over Iraq days later merely added icing to the cake.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Nishikawa, Shuichi Gonda.
Defenders: Yasuyuki Konno, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Masahiko Inoha, Atsuto Uchida, Hiroki Sakai, Gotoku Sakai.
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe, Toshihiro Aoyama, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Manabu Saito, Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda.
Forwards: Yoshito Okubo, Shinji Okazaki, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yuya Osako.
Read a full player-by-player Japan squad guide here on Bleacher Report.
Manager Profile: Alberto Zaccheroni
Experienced Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni took command of the Samurai Blue following the 2010 World Cup and has already enjoyed great success in the role, winning the 2011 Asian Cup and 2013 EAFF East Asian Cup.
It is from the players who helped him earn those two triumphs that the loyal tactician largely comprises his World Cup squad. That loyalty has, at times, been questioned, but there has been a freshening up over the past 12 months that looks to see Japan enter the World Cup in good shape.
Zaccheroni, 61, has a vast array of Serie A experience to call upon, having won the tournament with AC Milan in 1999. He also boasts experiences with Lazio, Inter and Juventus to his name, although he has not been entirely successful in those roles.
His success rate of 56 percent with Japan is impressive, albeit bolstered by fixtures against weaker Asian opposition. Over the past year, though, his side have performed well against the likes of the Netherlands, Belgium, Ghana and Italy.
However, for all his success in Asian competition, Zaccheroni's tenure as Japan coach will be judged by their coming World Cup performance.
Star Man: Keisuke Honda
Now at AC Milan, Honda may have failed to set Serie A alight this past six months, but he comes alive when featuring at the heart of the Samurai Blue side.
Honda links play wonderfully as the side's No. 10, combining brilliantly with Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) on the left and namesake Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) on the right. The trio play with pace and innovation, attempting to unlock sides with the speed of their passing moves.
There is much pressure on Honda to perform this summer. Expectations are at an all-time high regarding Japan's chances at the competition, and Honda is very much the leading public figure of the side. Poor performances will bring criticism.
While he is not in the best of form for Milan, where he has rarely operated in a central position, he has continued to impress when in action with his country. He enjoys the responsibility and thrives as part of an attacking unit all on a similar wavelength.
If Japan are to stand any chance of meeting expectations this summer, the likes of Honda and Kagawa simply must put aside their woes at club level and impress. They are icons at home and must now prove themselves worthy of the pedestal upon which they are placed.
1 to Watch: Yoichiro Kakitani
For the first time in a while, competition is heating up for the central attacking berth in Japan's side with both Yoichiro Kakitani of Cerezo Osaka and 1860 Munich's Yuya Osako impressing greatly over the past 12 months. At present, it is Kakitani in pole position to earn a starting berth.
Having put aside issues over his commitment and focus from earlier in his career, Kakitani has been brilliant over the past 18 months for both club and country. Naturally a versatile attacking midfielder, he has proven adept as a central striker and a reliable goalscorer.
He forced himself well and truly into international contention last summer. Having missed out on the Confederations Cup, Kakitani headed to Korea as part of a home-based squad for the EAFF East Asian Cup. He excelled, finishing the tournament as top scorer.
That showing was enough to earn the trust of head coach Zaccheroni, who had been previously reluctant to move away from the older faces in his squad. That tournament, though, has given him renewed options, and Kakitani is a leading light among those.
It was a surprise that he did not join Osako in moving to Europe in January, instead extending his stay with Cerezo—the same club that exported Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake to Europe. The World Cup will be his big platform to make a case for a move to a high-level outfit.
World Cup Record
Japan first qualified for the World Cup in 1998, having either failed to qualify, not entered or been banned (1950) from all previous editions of the competition.
Their record since is decent, qualifying for all four tournaments and twice getting to the round of 16 stage. This summer, they will be optimistic of at least matching that previous best.
Last time out, they recorded two wins and a defeat in the group stage, before a defeat to Paraguay on penalties saw them head home disappointed to have exited under such circumstances.
France 1998: Group stage
South Korea and Japan 2002: Round of 16
Germany 2006: Group stage
South Africa 2010: Round of 16
When the draw was made for the World Cup last December, Japan will have been delighted to enter Group C—from which they have a realistic chance of qualification.
Colombia will be the group favourites and Japan's final fixture, meaning it is important that they obtain strong results against the Ivory Coast and Greece to ensure progression. The opening clash with their African rivals is, on paper, likely to decide how their campaign will pan out.
Zaccheroni's side experienced Brazilian conditions at the Confederations Cup and impressed against both Italy and Mexico, despite a slow start to the competition against Brazil. This time around, they cannot afford to be hesitant out the blocks.
Ivory Coast vs. Japan
Arena Pernambuco, Recife
Japan vs. Greece
Arena das Dunas, Natal
Japan vs. Colombia
Arena Pantanal, Cuiaba