Group E: Japan

The co-hosts of 2002 can't wait to put the disappointment of the last World Cup behind them, but they're short of a top-class finisher...

This World Cup can’t come soon enough for Japan. The nation is desperate to put the nightmare that was 2006 well and truly behind them. Four years ago, Zico took the-then Asian champions to Germany full of hope and expectations of a performance that would match the second round of 2002. The Samurai Blue never recovered from Australia’s late show in the Kaiserslautern heat.

The intervening years have been unremarkable, although former Yugoslavia boss Ivica Osim had the team playing some good stuff in 2007 before a stroke necessitated a change. The media loved the Bosnian’s press conferences but are much less enamoured of his successor. Takeshi Okada is disliked by the pack and the feeling is mutual.

It is not difficult to guess why his appointment wasn’t greeted with excitement. The former Yokohama F Marinos boss was in charge at the 1998 World Cup when Japan lost all three games. He is charged with delivering a first overseas win for the nation. On recent evidence, there is still work to do. 
Qualification was never in doubt but performances were patchy. Recent form is worse. Three home games in February saw goalless draws against Venezuela and China and a 3-1 loss to South Korea. Fans jeered and the Japan FA demanded improvements.

Undeterred, however, Okada once again declared that he wants to reach the semi-finals in South Africa. “South Korea reached the last four – why can’t we?” he asked. Aimed to boost confidence, it has created pressure on the team and is mentioned every time a player or manager is interviewed. In reality, getting out of a tough group would be hailed as a success for a side that has still to win an overseas World Cup match.

But there is hope. Keisuke Honda’s performances in Eredivisie with VVV Venlo and the Champions League for CSKA Moscow have fans excited. With the likes of Makoto Hasebe at Wolfsburg, 2009 Asian Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo in midfield and rumoured Arsenal and Manchester United target Takayuki Morimoto of Catania in attack – if Okada picks him – Japan have talent.

Technically, the Japanese team is excellent, and only the top teams around the world can keep the ball and move it around better than the East Asians. The full-backs get forward well, especially Atsuto Uchida, and at speed. Set-pieces are a threat and not just the usual Nakamura or Endo specials. The big central defensive pairing of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka get their fair share of goals.

Japan may keep the ball well but they do sometimes give the impression of not really knowing what to do with it when they approach the opposition goal. Lack of a finisher may cost them – Okada’s favourite strikers, such as Yoshito Okubo and Keiji Tamada, are not prolific. 

Interesting factDuring a patchy qualifying campaign, the president of the Japanese FA urged fans to boo the national side in an attempt to toughen them up. "I want the supporters to boo their hearts out," said Motoaki Inukai. "It's good for the players."

The Coach: Takeshi Okada
Okada is not as media-savvy or friendly as his foreign predecessors and his reluctance to select some overseas-based players has puzzled many. Results in the big games have not been bad at all but Japan have rarely clicked under Okada, who is accused of having his favourites and sticking with them no matter what – especially in attack.

Key Player: Keisuke Honda
The nine million euros that CSKA forked out for the attacking midfielder in January already looks to be a bargain. Honda scores, creates and makes things happen.Probable Team (4-4-1-1): Narazaki; Uchida, Tanaka, Nakazawa, Tokunaga; Matsui, Hasebe, Endo, Nakamura; Honda; Okazaki

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the playersQ&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation

FixturesCameroon, June 14, 3pm, Mangaung/BloemfonteinHolland, June 19, 12.30pm, DurbanDenmark, June 24, 7.30pm, Rustenburg

Qualified 2nd in Asia Group 1Thailand (H) 4-1Bahrain (A) 0-1Oman (H) 3-0Oman (A) 1-1Thailand (A) 3-0Bahrain (H) 1-0Bahrain (A) 3-2
Uzbekistan (H) 1-1Qatar (A) 3-0
Australia (H) 0-0
Bahrain (H) 1-0
Uzbekistan (A) 1-0
Qatar (H) 1-1
Australia (A) 1-2World Cup record1998 1st Round2002 2nd Round2006 1st Round

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