Route to Russia:
Japan qualified for Russia in rocky fashion, they began their campaign by topping their group without conceding a goal. However, a 2-0 defeat to UAE rang a few alarm bells. Despite a few unconvincing performances, a 2-0 win over Australia (the first time they’ve beaten the Aussies in a World Cup qualifier) ensured automatic qualification. Japan also decided to sack their manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, during their qualification campaign and replace him with Akira Nishino.
How far can they get:
Japan have found themselves in Group H, consisting of Colombia, Senegal and Poland. At first glance this group may look nice, but it is deceptively tough, and Japan will be aware of this. They have qualified for the last 5 consecutive World Cups, getting out of the group twice of those times.
1998 – Group stage
2002 – Round of 16
2006 – Group stage
2010 – Round of 16
2014 – Group stage
2018 – ?
Judging by their recent record, we hope that Japan can keep up the pattern and reach the Round of 16.
Akira Nishino began his managerial career with Japan’s u-20 squad, followed by the u-23 squad. Since then, he has managed a handful of Japanese clubs, and he was chosen for multiple ‘Best Manager’ awards, became J.League Manager of the Year twice and led his teams to domestic trophies. However, he was only named as Japan’s manager in April, so has had little time to assemble his squad and get them up to speed.
Ones to watch:
You will recognise a lot of familiar faces in Japan’s 2018 squad, but Maya Yoshida, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki stand out as ones to watch. They bring the much needed experience and high quality football that is so valuable in a high pressure tournament. With the two Shinji’s and Honda leading the attack, Japan have a real shot at scoring some goals.