Having qualified for the last three World Cups and come away with just one performance of any note, a last 16 appearance on home turf in 2002, Japan will be desperate to make a more lasting impression in South Africa, but, after being drawn in what will be a  closely-fought Group E, the Samurai Blue’s prospects don’t look particularly good this time around.

After a slightly disappointing qualifying campaign in which Japan garnered only 15 points from their eight games, only enough to see them finish a distant second to Australia in AFC Group A, Head Coach Takeshi Okada would seem to have a lot of work on his hands if he is to instill a greater consistency of performance into his team. But that is not to say that this is a squad lacking in quality, in fact, quite the opposite is true. Although there are no Japanese players plying their trade with any of Europe’s very biggest clubs, the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Makoto Hasebe have plenty of experience in some of the best leagues in the world and have impressed on foreign shores in recent seasons. There is also an exciting group of young players breaking into the starting eleven, CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda (23) and Shinji Okazaki (24) of Shimizu S-Pulse arguably the two most outstanding talents of this new generation.

Tactically, Okada likes to organise his side in a conventional 4-2-3-1, Yuki Abe and the 2009 Asian Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo shielding the back four, with the dangerous pairing of Hasebe and Okazaki flanking Nakamura in a potent attacking trio designed to support the lone forward. In fact, Okada is spoilt for choice in the striking department, with Keiji Tamada, Kisho Yano and Takayuki Morimoto all presenting a strong case for selection, although Tamada seems the most likely candidate for a starting place in South Africa.

Although this may be a Japanese team shorn of some of the big stars of previous World Cups – Shinji Ono and Hidetoshi Nakata being two names that spring immediately to mind – it is a team full of potential. Whether that potential can be realised, however, is another question entirely. With several talented young players beginning to emerge as possible stars of the future, the 2010 World Cup will likely provide valuable experience for the squad as Japan look to the future and what could be the country’s strongest ever showing in 2014. Progression from the group might be too much to ask this time around, but expect to see signs of exciting emerging talent from Okada’s side this summer.

Probable starting XI: Narazaki (Nagoya Grampus); Uchida (Kashima Antlers), Tulio (Nagoya Grampus), Nakazawa (Yokohoma F. Marinos), Nagotomo (FC Tokyo); Abe (Urawa Red Diamonds), Endo (Gamba Osaka); Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Nakamura (Yokohoma F. Marinos), Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse); Tamada (Nagoya Grampus)

Road to South Africa: 2nd in AFC Group A

World Ranking: 45th

Odds: 250/1

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