After giving supporters little to cheer about during their World Cup buildup, Japan will have the odds stacked against them as they try to advance from a difficult group in Russia.
Given poor results and an air of turmoil surrounding the side following the sacking of head coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April, it is no surprise that experts have made the Samurai Blue a long shot to escape the group stage for the first time since the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Ranked 61st in the latest FIFA standings, Japan are the lowliest side in Group H behind Senegal (27), Colombia (16) and Poland (8), with analytics firm Gracenote Sports giving Akira Nishino’s men just a 29 percent chance of reaching the round of 16.
The Japan Football Association dropped a bombshell by sacking Halilhodzic two months ahead of the tournament, citing a breakdown in relations between the players and the Bosnian manager who successfully guided them through Asian qualifying.
The last straw was apparently Japan’s sub-par performances in a pair of international friendlies against World Cup non-qualifiers in Belgium in late March — a 1-1 draw with Mali and a 2-1 defeat by Ukraine.
With the exception of last December’s East Asian E-1 Football Championship, which only involved domestic-league players, the Samurai Blue had managed just one win in their last six internationals under Halilhodzic.
“We want to increase Japan’s odds of winning the World Cup, even if it’s by 1 or 2 percent,” JFA President Kozo Tashima said at the time of the sacking. “There is a risk in changing the manager, and there is also a risk in sticking with the manager. If there were some magic that allowed the team to improve without the dismissal, we would definitely go with that.”
The JFA gave the reins to its former technical director Nishino, who holds the record for most wins by a J-League manager and famously orchestrated the “Miracle of Miami,” when Japan upset a Brazil side stacked with future stars 1-0 at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The 63-year-old will lead a team built around veterans of the 2010 campaign, in which Japan reached the round of 16 before bowing out against Paraguay on penalties.
The Takeshi Okada-coached side advanced to the knockout phase in South Africa by beating Group E opponents Cameroon and Denmark 1-0 and 3-1, respectively, while losing 1-0 to eventual finalists the Netherlands.
Perhaps Japan’s biggest star at that tournament, playmaker Keisuke Honda, is set to enter his third World Cup under vastly different circumstances. The only recognized dead-ball specialist in the squad, the 31-year-old, who plays club football for Mexico’s Pachuca, was in danger of missing out on selection for Russia after falling out of favor with Halilhodzic.
Fellow senior players Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki had also been sidelined by Halilhodzic while they went through injury-hampered campaigns for their respective clubs.
Borussia Dortmund midfielder Kagawa missed two months during the latter stages of the Bundesliga season with an ankle injury, while a similar ailment sidelined Leicester forward Okazaki for roughly six weeks.
Along with the other survivors from the 2014 World Cup, they will be looking to make amends for their disappointing campaign in Brazil, when a talented crop of European-based players in their prime finished winless at the bottom of the group.
In his first game at the helm, a 2-0 loss to Ghana at Nissan Stadium on May 30, Nishino experimented with a back-three defensive formation. Captain Makoto Hasebe, normally a defensive midfielder for the national team and Eintracht Frankfurt, was deployed in the center of the backline with Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and Urawa’s Tomoaki Makino either side.
Early signs out of the Samurai Blue pre-tournament camp in Innsbruck, Austria, indicate that the squad is continuing to practice with the formation, which requires two wingbacks to provide additional defensive support while also getting forward in attack.
This would likely mean a crucial role for Galatasaray left back Yuto Nagatomo, who joined the Turkish powerhouse on loan in January after being squeezed out of Luciano Spalletti’s Inter side.
The 31-year-old showed against Ghana that he can still cause trouble for defenses, creating a number of chances for the home side, who dominated possession but lacked a finishing touch.
With an average of 44 international caps per player, according to Gracenote, Japan will be the fifth-most experienced side at the tournament. The lack of places for emerging players in the squad, however, has been a source of scrutiny. Nishino’s decision to omit 23-year-old midfielder Shoya Nakajima, following a standout season with Portuguese side Portimonense, drew particular criticism.
If Japan can exceed expectations and give a strong showing once the World Cup kicks off on June 14, the sacking, selection quibbles and poor results in friendlies will fade into memory.
It will be a tall order from the outset, however, with the Samurai Blue facing a powerful Colombia side in their opening match in the city of Saransk on June 19.
The game will be a replay of their Group C encounter at the 2014 tournament, when James Rodriguez announced his arrival on the world stage with a man-of-the-match performance as the South Americans ran out 4-1 winners.
With their subsequent group opponents Senegal and Poland also boasting world-class talent, the path to the knockout stage looks tough for Japan.