After performing superbly at the 2002 World Cup which they co-hosted, Japan were brought back down to earth with a group stage exit in Germany four years ago. This time around at the 2010 World Cup I South Africa, the national team will again look to prove that they can do the business away from home in the World Cup. There are lots of questions surrounding this team however and their ability to defeat world football’s best teams. In a difficult Group E alongside the Netherlands, Cameroon, and Denmark, Japan have their work cut out for them if they are to advance to the Round of 16. Should they do so they will have defied the odds and silenced the critics at the same time
TALE OF THE TAPE
FIFA Ranking: 45th
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2006)
World Cup Record (W-D-L): 2-2-6
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16, 2002
Road To South Africa: Finished in 2nd Place, Group 1, Asia Round 4
Gone are the days when this side could only count on domestic talent to produce the goods at international level. And though Japan doesn’t possess a player who is a major superstar, the squad contains several player of high quality who can change the course of the match. There is good core of players for Takeshi Okada to work with and the youth in the squad provide hope for the future.
Though qualification for the 2010 World Cup was straightforward for Japan, results in recent friendlies have been poor and there is the notion that against quality sides they struggle. This can be evidenced by defeats to Bahrain and Australia in the qualifiers.
Takeshi Okada will lead Japan to a World Cup for the second time, the first coming in Japan’s inaugural World Cup in 1998. Okada has made waves this time around by projecting a semi-finals finish for his side. This has raised eyebrows, however there are few who agree with his prediction and he has been the target for criticism due to Japan’s build-up to the tournament where results have not gone their way in friendlies.
The Key Men
Over the past few years everything involving the Japanese national team has begun and ended with Shunsuke Nakamura. The former Celtic midfielder, on his day, is a fantastic player capable of world-class displays. A move to Espanyol has seen his form suffer however and there are questions whether a loan move back to Japan will have rekindled his ability to produce. Japan will hope he is back to his best in South Africa where his set-piece mastery and skillful overall game will be key to Japanese hopes.
Another player that needs to come up with super performances in order for Japan to succeed will be Yashuito Endo, Endo, the 2009 Asian Player of the Year, is a versatile two-way midfielder who can be a ball-winner and also a creative influence in the middle of the park. His experience is vast with 85 caps for Japan and the team will need his leadership in the midfield.
This is team that has been predicted by just about everyone to finish last in Group E. For a side with so much World Cup experience this could be a no-no. If the Netherlands, Cameroon, and Denmark overlook this team then Japan are more than capable of pulling off a surprise.
The Key Match
If the team are able to pick up a point or two in their first two matches against Cameroon and the Netherlands, then the team’s third fixture against Denmark could be the one that decides who goes through as the second place team in the group.
Why You Should Watch Them
If you are looking for an underdog that plays an entertaining passing game with no shortage of movement and running, then Japanese would be a good fit for you. Though they have suffered at the hands of the big boys at times, Japan will have a go and could challenge for second spot in the group if things go well from the start or at the very least play spoiler in Group E.
Guest Panelist: Aiden Williams, Japan Football Expert who writes the Japan World Cup Blog at Worldcupblog.com
Aidan told One Game, One World:
Japan are coming into the World Cup on the back of some indifferent performances this year. On the one hand they completed a comfortable qualification for next year’s Asian Cup, but on the other they finished 3rd behind China and South Korea in the East Asian Championships which Japan hosted in February. This, combined with some poor friendly matches, has piled the pressure on coach Takeshi Okada who has faced booing from the crowd encouraged by the JFA President, survived showdown talks about his sacking, been petitioned against by some of the fans and generally is felt to have no plan B for the team, and I’m not convinced he can adapt during a match well enough if things start to go wrong.
Plan A, which Japan do have, is based on the skills of some of their European based players, especially CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda, who can play in midfield or more crucially just behind the main striker. He is key to Japan’s success, as is Shunsuke Nakamura who returned to Japan this year to re-find his form after a difficult time in Espanyol. But a lack of big league experience in much of the squad is a definite weakness. Japan’s defence is settled and also weighs in with a few goals, but they are more likely to be tested at the back by some quality opposition attackers.
Takeshi Okada is on record stating that he is aiming for a semi-final spot for Japan, but nobody else shares this optimism – some would call it insanity. Realistically Japan will have exceeded expectations if they make it out of the group. A good start against Cameroon is crucial, and after that who knows? A win over Denmark is not beyond the realms of possibility and could bring a 2nd place finish. More likely however, Japan will bow out at the group stage but hopefully they will surprise a few people and maybe scare some of the other teams who think Japan will be a soft touch.
One Game, One World Final Say
Predicted by everyone to go three and out, it really wouldn’t surprise anyone if Japan were to be amongst the first sides to be eliminated with a loss or two right off the bat. But, it all seems too unlikely that it will go exactly like that. If this team can start off the right foot with at least a point against Cameroon then we could end up talking about one of the surprise packages of the tournament. A place in the knockout rounds would be a huge success even if Okada has his eyes set on a final four finish. That undoubtedly is way beyond this side.
What do you think? Can Japan make it out of Group E? Let us know what you think with your comments and views!