Japan national team at a training session (Photo: @jfa_en)
will make their sixth appearance at the finals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup
in Russia. Although, this edition will see the return of some star players back into the fold, a late managerial change and a squad bereft of clear tactical identity might hinder their plans to advance from a winnable yet tricky group.
Coach Akira Nishino took over the Blue Samurai after his predecessor Franco-Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic was abruptly sacked, apparently due to some unflattering results and his long-standing feud with senior players, notably forward Keisuke Honda and playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
The 63-year-old veteran will find himself under heavy scrutiny after taking over as Japan
coach two months before the tournament. As such, he is expected to play it safe and field experienced players - as he did in the recent friendlies. A former international player himself, Nishino took charge of Japan's Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Atlanta in 1996. He also guided Gamba Osaka to the FIFA Club World Cup semi-finals in 2008.
The high-profile trio of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki make a return to the squad after being sidelined by Halilhodzic. This should benefit the team on and off the pitch. Japan
has a squad rich in experience but one which is also quite aged (seven have 80 or more caps for the national team). Nonetheless, the squad is filled with stars who play across the top leagues in the world.
Nishino has tried 3-4-2-1 formation in a few friendlies without much success. There is thus lack of clarity on how he will line-up his players in the main tournament.
Road to Fifa World Cup 2018
reached the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Russia after their 2-0 win against Australia on 31 August 2017 which sealed progression from Asia's Group B at the third round stage. Japan
qualified automatically for their sixth consecutive World Cup with commanding performances in the games that mattered, but there were also hiccups along the way – such as a home loss to the UAE.
Fifa World Cup Group: Japan
are in Group H with Poland, Colombia, and Senegal. The Blue Samurai are in a tough yet winnable group. Although, on paper this team isn't strong enough to qualify, the Samurai grit might take them to the next round and a hot start will give them a chance at that.
Defence: Maya Yoshida is Japan's mainstay and a rock at the heart of defence. How the Japanese defence cope with the threat of star attacking players that their group opponents boast (Rodriguez, Lewandowski, and Mane) could decide their longevity at the World Cup. Yoshida has 80 caps for the national team and since 2012, he has played in the Premier League for Southampton where he has made 163 appearances in six seasons.
: Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa
will be the star player in Japan's fine midfield that also features Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe. Japan
would rely heavily on Kagawa to create chances. Hotaru Yamaguchi is the key holding player in midfield in the team. New faces, notably Ideguchi and Shu Kurata – both players also possess superb long-range shots, are also going to be ones to watch out for.
Attack: The former manager Halilhodzic liked to stick with a three-man front line. It's unclear if Nishino will follow suit. Yuya Osako is the first-choice centre-forward but all three positions are still up for grabs. Shinji Okazaki, the Leicester City striker, has 50 goals for the national team and will likely start up top. A fine player, Okazaki has the ability to score some marvelous goals and his 112 appearences for the national team is the proof of the quality he possess.
SAMURAI BLUE leave for pre-tournament camp site, Austria #football https://t.co/EIxcjmGl7Z pic.twitter.com/Y5O2KMkEHZ
— jfa_en (@jfa_en) June 3, 2018
Japan 23-man final squad:
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)
Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa
(Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)