Group H: Managerial change could kill Japan’s hopes

After sacking the man who guided them to the World Cup, Japan step into the unknown

Japan (200-1)

Who are they?

This will be Japan's sixth World Cup and realistically they will have little chance of bettering the performances in 2002 and 2010 which saw them reach the second round. While they probably couldn't have asked for a much better draw they will still have to spring a surprise or two if they are to qualify. To do so they will have to overcome the turbulence which has been the main feature of their build-up to the World Cup after Vahid Halilhodzic – the manager who guided them through qualifying – was sacked and replaced by Akira Nishino. Halilhodzic had World Cup experience under his belt after leading Algeria to the last 16 in 2014 and Japan may well regret his sacking. A recent friendly loss to Ukraine and only a draw with Mali hasn't filled anyone with confidence and ultimately saw the end of Halilhodzic's reign.

World Cup moment

Inevitably the moment Japan will look back on most fondly from the World Cup is when they co-hosted with South Korea in 2002 and reached the last 16. After topping their group ahead of Belgium, Russia and Tunisia it was only a narrow loss to Turkey in the second round which ended their chances on home soil. Had they won they would have faced Senegal in the quarter-finals and could well have matched their co-hosts heroics of reaching the semi-finals.

How did they get here?

While the AFC qualifying region is perhaps the weakest of all World Cup qualifying regions around the world, Japan still had to work hard to gain an automatic berth ahead of Australia. A disappointing early loss to the UAE set them back but they managed to do enough from then on, eventually topping the group ahead of Saudi Arabia thanks to a win over Australia in their second last game, consigning the Socceroos to the playoffs.

The gaffer

Akira Nishino was appointed manager just two months ago after the sacking of Halilhodzic, meaning he has very little time to prepare for this tournament: not exactly ideal for a man who has never coached outside the Japanese national league at senior level. However, Nishino is very well respected in Japan for his domestic exploits and he may just bring in the new manager bump that’s often seen at club teams when things had gone somewhat stale under the previous coach.


The main man

While Keisuke Honda is still the biggest name in Japanese football, his influence on the national team has waned in recent times since his departure from AC Milan and move to Mexico. The man who really makes things tick and creates the chances is Shinji Kagawa, formerly of Manchester United and now back at Borussia Dortmund. After failing to flourish in England, Kagawa has got his confidence back in Germany and forms part of an experienced core which also includes Honda and Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki.

The one to watch

Yosuke Ideguchi is a 21-year-old midfielder who has already impressed for the national team and even did enough to seal a move to Leeds United in January after scoring Japan’s second in their penultimate qualifying game against Australia to complete a 2-0 win and secure their place in Russia. Since then he has gone out on loan to Spanish second division club Cultural Leonasa but a strong performance in Russia could well see him take his place among a Leeds team pushing for promotion next season.

The verdict

The late change of manager can go one of two ways for Japan and few seem to be confident of it going in the positive direction. Three months is hardly enough time for Akira Nishino to embed his tactics and it will surprise many if they manage to get beyond the group stages.

The squad

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)

Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)