Japan Olympic Soccer Team 2012: Roster Predictions & Analysis
In Group D with Spain, Honduras and Mexico, Japan's men's team looks set to make a splash in the football tournament at this summer's Olympic Games.
The "Samurai Blue", as they're known, were rampant in Olympic qualifying, winning five of their six games and scoring 13 goals in the process, while conceding just three.
And with three over-23 players allowed in the tournament—the rules for the men's tournament state 15 of the 18-man roster has to be made up of players born from 1 January 1989 onwards—head coach Takashi Sekizuka has a plethora of experienced European-based stars to choose from.
Borussia Dortmund star and Manchester United target Shinji Kagawa could also feature, given that he's eligible to play without affecting the overage quota and has put his hand up for selection at London 2012.
So it looks like Japan will make quite a stir at the Games, and with that in mind, let's take a look at how the Asian powerhouse may fare this summer.
Head coach Takashi Sekizuka hasn't yet officially announced his team for the Olympics, but going on his roster for the qualifiers, and mumblings from the media about the various overage and European-based stars who could participate, here's a rundown of the players in contention to make Japan's roster.
The likes of Keisuke Honda and Ryoichi Maeda, amongst other veteran players, could be overlooked entirely.
The overage stars are italicised.
Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Shunsuke Ando (Kawasaki Frontale)
Takuya Masuda (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Yusuke Higa (Yokohama Flügels Marinos)
Daisuke Suzuki (Albirex Niigata)
Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol)
Mizuki Hamada (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Gotoku Sakai (VfB Stuttgart)
Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan)
Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04)
Kazuya Yamamura (Kashima Antlers)
Keigo Higashi (Omiya Ardija)
Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)
Ryo Miyaichi (Arsenal)
Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund)
Kensuke Nagai (Nagoya Grampus)
Yuya Osako (Kashima Antlers)
Yuki Otsu (Borussia Monchengladbach)
Shinji Okazaki (VfB Stuttgart)
Potential Overage Selections
Men's football at the Olympics is an U-23 tournament with one exception—each nation can have three players over 23 in their roster.
Head coach Takashi Sekizuka has mainly stuck with fielding players from the J-League and surrounding leagues, but could use his full quota of overage stars to help Japan continue placing themselves on the world football map.
Here's a look at the possible overage stars who could represent Japan in London:
Yuto Nagatomo (Left Back, Inter Milan)
Yuto Nagatomo is one of Japan's star defenders at the moment, especially considering he's one of the most important players for one of the best clubs in Serie A and world football, Inter Milan.
The 25-year-old is a key part of the senior setup, but with wing play crucial to Japan's threat going forward, the coach could look to give the team good strength on the wings and select Nagatomo—the nation's best full back—for the U-23 Olympic side.
Atsuto Uchida (Right Back, Schalke 04)
Nagatomo may be the best Japanese full back right now, but Atsuto Uchida—another vital member of the senior team—isn't far behind him, and could also be selected for the U-23 team to bolster their quality on the wing.
And with inexperienced players like Ryo Miyaichi on the flanks, a veteran wing partner like Uchida could be the perfect player to get the best out of the wingers.
Shinji Okazaki (Left Winger, VfB Stuttgart)
Another Japanese player plying his trade in the Bundesliga, Shinji Okazaki is Japan's best attacking threat in the senior team.
The 26-year-old has won 50 caps and scored 26 goals for the senior side, and this season for Stuttgart has got seven goals from 18 starts.
Kensuke Nagai, Ryo Miyaichi, Shinji Okazaki
Japan's U-23 side under Takashi Sekizuka play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with two wingers often cutting inside to create more options in and around the penalty area.
Kensuke Nagai is usually the main striker and is used to both hold up play and bring others into action, as well as to get into the box and finish off chances himself.
Yuya Osako is Sekizuka's favourite backup option, with the tall, strong forward perfectly suited to the manager's tactics.
By the Numbers:
10: Goals scored in 16 games for the U-23 side by Kensuke Nagai.
Shinji Kagawa, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Kazuya Yamamura
The Japan U-23 team always plays with two holding midfielders who'll most likely be Hotaru Yamaguchi and Kazuya Yamamura, who have built up a solid partnership throughout the qualifiers.
And the trequartista will most likely be the country's biggest football celebrity, Shinji Kagawa. Keigo Higashi is the man who made the role his own during qualifying, but a player of Kagawa's quality will undoubtedly be too hard to demote to the bench.
By the Numbers:
55: Caps for the U-23s between Yamaguchi (20), Higashi (18) and Yamamura (17).
Yuto Nagatomo, Atsuto Uchida, Daisuke Suzuki, Mizuki Hamada
Yusuke Higa, Hiroki Sakai, Gotoku Sakai
Japan focus a lot on wing play, so the full backs will be especially important—hence why the country's two best options (Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida) are big possibilities to feature at the Games.
With the team's formation and positioning quite flexible, versatility is a key component of the manager's selection. A lot of the defenders previously selected for the team have been able to play in a number of positions across the back four and midfield.
By the Numbers:
91: Caps collectively earned by Atsuto Uchida (46) and Yuto Nagatomo (45) for the senior team.
Shuichi Gonda, who plays for capital club FC Tokyo, will most likely be the starter for Japan at the Olympics this summer. The 23-year-old is no. 1 for his club as well and has made over 120 professional appearances.
Shunsuke Ando will be the reserve goalkeeper and was the shot-stopper of choice for the U-21s in the Asian Games back in 2010
By the Numbers:
1: Goal conceded in seven games by Ando at the 2010 Asian Games, in the semifinal against Iran (his team won 2-1).
After a relatively modest playing career—which lasted just seven years—as an amateur for Honda FC (yes, owned by the motor company), 30-year-old Takashi Sekizuka started as a manager back in 1991.
Now 51, the current Japan U-23 boss had stints managing two of Japan's biggest clubs—Kawazaki Frontale and Kashima Antlers—and was a well-known figure in Japanese football before accepting the role of Olympic team head coach in 2010.
The experienced coach sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and even with a team with two holding midfielders, is rather attack-minded.
The two players holding in the middle are encouraged to be box-to-box midfielders throughout a game, while the full backs are given an alternating license to get forward at almost every opportunity—allowing the wingers to cut inside and create more options and space in the penalty area.
It's a system that has served Japan well against inferior opposition, with the Samurai Blue having won five of their six games in the qualifying group stages of the Olympics.
The tactics have also done Sekizuka's team good against Australia's and Egypt's U-23 sides, who Japan beat 3-1 and 2-1 respectively.
Under Takashi Sekizuka, Japan's U-23s have so far scored on average 2.25 goals per game and conceded just 0.63.
Best Case Scenario
Japan shock the world and win Group D, beating the almighty Spain as the JFA get the best platform possible for their "Project 2050"—the year in which they aim to have won the men's FIFA World Cup, having placed a great national emphasis on football, and developed players with some of the best technical ability in the world.
They go on to play Egypt in the quarterfinals and win that match—just like when they beat them 2-1 in that friendly on 10 August 2011—before beating Mexico in the semifinals and then Brazil in the finals to take the gold medal.
An unlikely scenario, but given the technical ability Japan is already producing in its young stars, one that isn't beyond the realms of possibility.
Worst Case Scenario
Japan struggle their way out of Group D, getting thrashed by Spain and very unconvincingly scraping past Honduras and Morocco.
They then get comprehensively beaten by Brazil. Shinji Kagawa gets big-headed again and labels the whole experience a waste of time. And manager Takashi Sekizuka gets sacked.
And to top it all off, one of the European-based stars gets injured, and their club takes action against the JFA.
Japan will finish...
With the bronze medal.
They're a team full of very good technical players and play an expansive formation in 4-2-3-1 which allows them to match any style of play and any football culture—and what's more, they have the players to do it.
They'll play Spain and are set to play Brazil in the quarterfinals, but La Furia Roja will be hampered in their selection by Euro 2012, while the Selecao are a team in decline. The Samurai Blue definitely have the potential to spring a surprise.
And whilst the final is a stretch too far for Japan, the semifinals certainly aren't, and again the underrated Japanese—who will boast one or two of the world's most burgeoning footballers—could upset the odds.
A bronze medal is within Japan's reach and is the least they should secretly aim for.
Best Olympic Finish:
Quarterfinals (Berlin 1936, Tokyo 1964, Sydney 2000)
How they Qualified for the Olympics:
Won Group C of the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Pre-Olympic Tournament, after beating Kuwait 4-3 on aggregate (won 3-1 at home, lost 2-1 away), having entered in the second preliminary round (a two-legged knockout match).
That's like saying, "do you breathe oxygen?"
Of course we do!
Check out the Japan U-23s in action in their crucial game against the Bahrain U-23s back in March, as well as their game against the Malaysia U-23s.
And here's a look at all of Japan's best young talents. See for yourself, they're pretty darn good.
Fun-ish Soccer-Related Fact:
In the AFC pre-Olympic qualifying tournament Japan were competing in, Iran automatically lost 5-0 to Iraq after accidentally fielding a banned player.