The World Cup in Russia will be the great last dance for one of the best generations in the history of Japanese football. Honda, Kagawa, Hasebe and Nagatomo will arrive at the FIFA World Cup clear in the knowedge that they never lived up to the hype that had been previously generated. The truth is that, although Japan often tends to be considered as a bit of a surprise package at tournaments, this year they come with few expectations. The dismissal of manager Vahid Halilhodžić just two months ahead of the tournament has triggered even more doubts about a team that has struggled to perform at the moment of truth.
The previous coach had implemented a pragmatic style of play, totally contrary to the Japanese mentality, but something that is bearing fruit in their national club game, shown by the likes of Kashima Antlers and the Urawa Reds. His departure and the arrival of Akira Nishino is a change of direction, although, as yet, it is unknown in which way. Until now the idea has been to be less entertaining, less aesthetically pleasing, but more decisive. In key matches against Australia and the United Arab Emirates they made this abundantly clear with tremendously low possession percentages. The side benefits from the contributions of those lesser-known players, such as Yuya Kubo, Yuya Osako, Yasuyuki Konno... but those that make the difference at the business end of the pitch remain those from the old guard, including Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
Japan conceded the second least number of goals (7) through Asian qualification with only the incredibly miserly Iran (2), under the stewardship of Carlos Quieroz being breached less. Along with Saudi Arabia, the topped the goals-scored list with 17. In Russia, that means little.
|Preferred system: 4-1-3-2
The surprising dismissal of Vahid Halihodzic as the Japanese national team manager just two months before the World Cup opened the door to Akira Nishino. A coach well known in domestic football, he now has the difficult task of making the team competitive with very little time to work with them. Nishino, who has 12 international caps to his name, has managerial plaudits: taking the U23 side to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (beating Brazil and Hungary in the group stage) and with Gamba Osaka won everything that was up for grabs, including the Asian Champions League. That was a decade ago, however, and he has never reached the same levels since. What is clear is that he is a coach who knows the local football and national league inside out, as well as the federation that has looked in recent years towards foreign managers. Since Takeshi Okada, in 2010, Japan has gone through three non-native coaches but return with Nishino for Russia.
|Club: Borussia Dortmund
|Height: 175 cm
Despite his strange season at Dortmund, filled with inconsistency and injuries, he remains the star of the Japanese national team for his experience and individual quality. Dortmund discovered him at Cerezo Osaka and in his first spell in Germany he was marvelled at for his talent and final ball. It proved much more difficult for him to prove himself at Manchester United which resulted in his return to Signal Iduna Park. Assuming he's fit, he is one of the first names on the Japan teamsheet in a creative midfield position. He should arrive fresh in Russia, although his stock has dropped somewhat from where it was.