5 Questions for Japan Coach Alberto Zaccheroni Ahead of Friendly with Costa Rica
Japan take on Costa Rica in Florida on Monday night in the second of three World Cup warm-up matches after having laboured to a 1-0 victory over Cyprus last week.
The Samurai Blue have big ambitions for the month ahead, with a second-round finish to match their best ever in World Cup competition the minimum expectation following improvement over recent years.
Improvement, though, is needed and Alberto Zaccheroni will be hoping that his side put on a better display against what is a competitive Costa Rica side.
While Japan's game plan is relatively settled, what questions will the Italian hope to see answered at the Raymond James Stadium?
Are Fitness Levels at Planned Levels?
In the fixture with Cyprus last week, it was clear that Japan's fitness levels were not ideal after Coach Zaccheroni's intensive pre-tournament camp.
However, having now been in Florida for a few days of warm-weather training, it will be interesting to see just how the players' preparations are coming along. While there is a need to work hard, they cannot afford to go to the World Cup having over-exerted themselves.
The camp in the USA is now about adapting to the weather conditions more than boosting fitness levels, meaning they should have had more recuperation time. Costa Rica, in what will be ideal weather for the Central American side, will be a good indicator of how they must approach the 10 days ahead.
Is Makoto Hasebe Fit to Return in Midfield?
Since the success of Cerezo Osaka's Hotaru Yamaguchi at the 2013 East Asian Cup, he has come into Zaccheroni's plans and was chosen to partner experienced Yasuhito Endo at the centre of the Japan midfield against Cyprus.
Returning from injury, captain Makoto Hasebe will be keen to prove his fitness against Costa Rica.
Endo and Yamaguchi as a partnership is technically gifted—helping Japan play their brand of exciting attacking football—but lack the physicality that Nurnberg star Hasebe can offer.
Hasebe has several years of Bundesliga experience to his name and is an all-action presence at the heart of the team, breaking up play and starting attacks.
Even if he is unfit to start, Hasebe could be introduced early to test his readiness for World Cup action.
Is Yoichiro Kakitani the Best Striking Option?
Cerezo forward Yoichiro Kakitani has earned plenty of plaudits over the past 12 months and will soon make his way into European football. However, he has competition for his place at the head of the Japan attack.
Kakitani was poor against Cyprus and, bar a couple of well-taken goals in the AFC Champions League, has not hit top goalscoring form in 2014. With experienced target man Yoshito Okubo back in the squad and 1860 Munich's Yuya Osako also a major goal threat, Japan have options.
Osako is perhaps the most likely to come into the side, with his playing style similar to Kakitani and some excellent performances to his name over the past 12 months.
Veteran Okubo, though, has much support among fans of the side and could make a late run for a starting berth.
Who Should Partner Maya Yoshida in Defence?
Out-of-favour Southampton defender Maya Yoshida is another important player making his way back from injury and, if selected, will likely partner the experienced Yasuyuki Konno in the centre of defence.
However, there is a real challenge being staked by FC Tokyo's Masato Morishige for a starting berth.
In recent run-outs for the Samurai Blue, 27-year-old Morishige has stood out, and it is fair to say that neither Konno nor Yoshida covered themselves with glory at last year's Confederations Cup. Of the pair, Yoshida is more integral to the side if he can prove his fitness.
It may well be then that Zaccheroni chooses to test defensive combinations one last time against Costa Rica. Alternatively, now may be the time to give as many minutes as possible to the chosen pair as the World Cup approaches. It remains unclear who will get the nod.
Can Japan Cope with Pressure?
While Japan are doing their best to relax in the build-up to the World Cup, their players will also be aware that pressure is mounting ahead of a tournament in which they are expected to perform well.
At the Confederations Cup, they won many supporters with their ambitious football but slumped to three defeats against Mexico, Italy and Brazil. There are questions, then, about their ability to convert good football into wins.
In what is a winnable group at the World Cup, they cannot afford to make similar sloppy mistakes when the opportunity to grab three points presents itself. They must prove they can deal with pressure and concentrate for an entire 90 minutes.
The fixture with Costa Rica is an opportunity to begin to silence those doubts. Against tough opposition they have a chance to prove they can be clinical in sealing wins and gather confidence ahead of coming tests. Simply playing nice football can no longer be accepted.