Manager: Akira Nishino
Other teams in group: Poland, Colombia and Senegal
Japan have plenty of youth and experience in what is a squad that have failed to adapt to a new play style under manager Akira Nishino. There are 20 clubs represented in the final 23 man squad with 8 leagues also represented in the team, in fact some of Japan’s best players play in Europe’s League Elite. Shinji Kagawa is Japan’s star player and the Borussia Dortmund playmaker is joined by Gotoku Sakai, Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto and captain Makoto Hasebe in applying their trade in the Bundesliga. Elsewhere, main goalscorer Shinji Okazaki and defensive rock Maya Yoshida play in the Premier League, Eiji Kawashima and Hiroki Sakai operate in Ligue 1, while Takashi Inui and Gaku Shibasaki apply their trade in Spain’s La Liga.
The squad in full:
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers).
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz).
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Japan came through top of their group in the third round of qualification for this summer’s World Cup in the AFC qualification region. They did however, have to come through qualification the long way playing 18 games before they were guaranteed their seats on the plane to Russia. They comfortably topped the first group in Round 2 of qualification with 7 wins and 1 draw in 8 games putting them into the next round.
The 3rd round of qualification was tough for Japan, falling to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the United Arab Emirates in the opening fixture. Back to back wins over Thailand (2-0) and Iraq (2-1) had them back in contention as Australia and Saudi Arabia both won their opening two games before drawing in the third leaving Japan outside the qualification zone.
A 1-1 draw with Australia followed by a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia and two more victories over the United Arab Emirates (2-0) and Thailand (4-0) had the Samurai Blue looking comfortable and on course for automatic qualification. Japan then finished off their qualification campaign with a 1-1 draw over Iraq, a 2-0 victory over Australia and suffered a 1-0 defeat to Saudi Arabia in their final game as both sides qualified from the group, with Saudi Arabia going through thanks to a plus 2 goal difference.
Unlike most nations Japan have changed their coach just 2 months before they kick off against Colombia on June 19th, head coach Vahid Halilhodžic was sacked just two months prior to the start of the 2018 competition. Akira Nishino who took over the national team have very little time to change the style of football before Japan jet off to Russia.
Japan had qualified for the competition but a series of poor results including a 3-3 draw with Haiti and a heavy 4-1 defeat to rivals South Korea gave the Japanese Football Association no choice but to change their coach just a few months before the tournament. There had been calls from the local media for Halilhodžic to resign as early as last September and there were also several reports in local media also that Halilhodžic had lost the dressing room prior to his sacking mainly due to having fall outs with players.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Japan’s star player Kagawa has been instrumental in his national side ever since he made his debut in 2008, 90 caps later Kagawa is his nations hero when he is part of the Samurai Blue. Six goals during qualification before a fall out with then manager Vahid Halilhodžic resulted in Kagawa not featuring for his national side altogether due to him not suiting the tactics the team were playing with. Now that new manager Akira Nishino has taken over he will look to Kagawa to lead by example at only his second World Cup tournament.
Captain of Japan since 2010, Hasabe now 34 years of age has been a main stay in his national side since 2006. The defensive midfielder will offer plenty of experience occupying the middle of the park for the Samurai Blue during this summer’s tournament. This will be Hasabe’s 3rd World Cup appearance and may be his final and most important duty as captain of his nation following a round of 16 exit in the 2010 World Cup followed by a disastrous 2014 finish where they finished bottom of the group.
The point of attack for the Samurai Blue, the Leicester City striker was a massive influence to the side that remarkably won the Premier League in 2016 becoming only the second Japanese player to do so behind Shinji Kagawa, Okazaki scored 5 goals doing his sides qualification process for Russia 2018. Now 32 years old, Okazaki has been around the Japan squad since 2008 and to date has 112 caps whilst managing to score 50 goals during that time as he continues to be his countries third highest goalscorer.
WHERE THEY ARE PLAYING AND STAYING
19/06: Colombia v Japan, Mordovia Arena Saransk
24/06: Japan v Senegal, Ekaterinburg Arena Ekaterinburg
28/06: Japan v Poland, Volgograd Arena Volgograd
Japan will be staying in Kazan. This is the best location for the team for where they will play as it is nearly 6 hours away from Saransk, 13 hours from Ekaterinburg and 13 from Volgograd. The base includes a hotel complex, a health and rehabilitation centre, a restaurant complex and some offices. The Japan team will train on the many outdoor pitches.
THREE INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE TEAM
Japan will make their 6th appearance at the World Cup this summer with their first coming in 1998. Their best result has come in both 2002 where they were joint hosts and in 2010 in South Africa where they reached the round of 16 stage. Japan are currently ranked 61st in the world and are the number 4 best ranked team in the Asian Football Confederation.
Japan failed to qualify for a World Cup until 1998 because of a lack of a professional league in the country. In 1993 the J League was formed and setup as a professional league which caused the sport to grow nationally in Japan.
Japan have the 10th oldest squad going to Russia with the average age being 28.6, their oldest players include 35 year old Eiji Kawashima, 34 year old Makato Hasabe, and Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda and Masaaki Higashiguchi who are all 32 years old.
THEIR RECENT FORM
Japan have a terrible run of form going into the World Cup since qualification ended, in their last 10 games they have managed just 2 victories and 2 draws while suffering defeat six times, this run of form was what cost former coach Vahid Halilhodžic his job as this poor form looks ominous for Japan’s World Cup hopes. They will play their final warm up game against Paraguay on June 12th.
First game: The Samurai Blue play Colombia in their opening Group H fixture on 19th June in the Mordovia Arena Saransk.