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Team preview: Japan

June 3, 2010
By Michael Griffin
ESPN.com
(Archive)

Japan has become a World Cup fixture in the past decade, with South Africa 2010 representing its fourth straight finals appearance. Yet the Blue Samurai have never won a World Cup game on foreign turf: Its two group-stage wins came on home soil during the 2002 finals.

Takeshi Okada's squad is looking to change that record, but was drawn into a tough group with Cameroon, Denmark and the Netherlands. Japan was among the first countries to qualify for South Africa, finishing second to Australia in its Asian section, but has had trouble scoring goals in recent internationals.

That lack of offense could be a problem when facing opposing strikers who are more clinical in front of goal, but a number of the team's stars who now see action for European club sides -- such as midfielders Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda -- are aiming to lead Japan to a surprise run to the knockout rounds.

Coach: Takeshi Okada

Okada is in his second stint as Japan coach, having guided the Blue Samurai to the team's first World Cup in 1998. The disciplinarian stunningly predicted a semifinal finish for Japan in this World Cup when retaking the helm after previous manager Ivica Osim suffered a stroke in late 2007. A defender in his playing days, Okada may opt for a formation with a five-man midfield at the World Cup to rely on his side's solid play in the center of the park.

Style of play

Japan has traditionally produced talented midfielders, and the midfield will again serve as the team's strength. Look for the Blue Samurai to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Yasuhito Endo pulling the strings from his central position. Marcus Tulio Tanaka and captain Yuji Nakazawa provide experience in defense for Japan, with veteran mids Makoto Hasebe and Shunsuke Nakamura offering assistance in attack and free-kick prowess to compensate for a lack of scoring punch up front.

Players to watch

1. Yasuhito Endo. A midfield creator who can control the tempo of a game, Endo was on the 2006 World Cup roster but did not see action. Since that time, the versatile midfielder has emerged as a key player, and can also operate in a more defensive role. The AFC Asian Player of the Year in 2009, he scored three times in 12 World Cup qualifiers and will need to be influential if Japan is to advance out of Group E.

2. Marcus Tulio Tanaka. The Brazilian-born Tulio Tanaka offers a strong presence in the defense along with a solid reading of the game. This will be the first World Cup for the 28-year-old, who was his country's Footballer of the Year in 2006. The 6-foot-1 defender appeared in 12 World Cup qualifiers, and a good showing in South Africa may lead him to join a European club side this summer.

3. Takayuki Morimoto. Another player who could be in the shop window this summer is 22-year-old forward Morimoto, who has played with Catania in Italy's Serie A the past three years. Morimoto may not be Japan's starting striker in South Africa, but look for him to get a chance if Keiji Tamada or Yoshito Okubo fails to convert on scoring chances.

Who's hot

Keisuke Honda. Honda appeared in only three of Japan's World Cup qualifiers, but the midfielder has impressed after given time by Okada late last year and since joining Russian club side CSKA Moscow in January. He scored CSKA's winning goal to eliminate Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 matchup, and his probing runs will add another outlet for Japan's attack in the World Cup. The versatile Honda, who will turn 24 the day before his country's opening match against Cameroon, can also play at fullback to add pace to Japan's backline.

Who's not

Shunsuke Nakamura. While Nakamura remains something of a talisman for the team, injuries and a lack of playing time have marked his past two seasons on the club level. The 31-year-old midfielder who is deadly at set pieces joined Spain's Espanyol for the 2009-10 season but basically spent the first half of the campaign on the bench. At the urging of national team manager Okada, Nakamura returned home in February to the J-League's Yokohama F Marinos, where he began to see more regular time on the pitch to better prepare for South Africa.

Three key questions

1. Will Japan's forwards produce goals on the world stage? In 14 qualifying games, Japan managed to score more than one goal in only four games (against less-than-stellar competition.) The team's top four leading scorers in World Cup qualifiers were comprised of two midfielders and two defenders, an indication of the weakness up top. And if Keiji Tamada or Yoshito Okubo does not hit the nets early in the tournament, how long will Okada wait before giving youngsters like Morimoto and Shinji Okazaki some time?

2. Can the defense contain some of the game's top strikers?

Group E teams facing Japan feature some of the most-feared striking talent on top club teams, including Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon, Netherlands' Robin van Persie and Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner. As captain Yuji Nakazawa remarked to the press recently, Japan will need to play with courage and mental fortitude to successfully deal with a higher level of attacking talent not seen during its qualifying campaign.

3. Will Japan break its winless "road" record in the World Cup?

The Blue Samurai have never been on the winning side in a World Cup match played outside their own country. For Japan to advance to the second round, it will almost certainly have to take the full three points from one of its Group E opponents.

Projected lineup

G Seigo Narazaki, Nagoya Grampus (Japan)
D Atsuto Uchida, Kashima Antlers (Japan)
D Yuji Nakazawa, Yokohama F Marinos (Japan)
D Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Nagoya Grampus (Japan)
D Yuichi Komano, Jubilo Iwata (Japan)
M Yuki Abe, Urawa Reds (Japan)
M Yasuhito Endo, Gamba Osaka (Japan)
M Keisuke Honda, CSKA Moscow (Russia)
M Shunsuke Nakamura, Yokohama F Marinos (Japan)
M Makoto Hasebe, VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)
F Keiji Tamada, Nagoya Grampus (Japan) OR Yoshito Okubo, Vissel Kobe (Japan)