After an impressive performance in their qualifying campaign, where they qualified top of a group that also consisted of other World Cup finalists Saudi Arabia and Australia, Japan have had a recent run of bad form, scraping a 3-3 draw with Haiti, a 4-1 thrashing by rivals South Korea, and a draw and a loss to Mali and Ukraine, respectively. It seems that the Japanese FA have had enough, and earlier this month they announced that they had sacked coach Vahid Halilhodzic, and replaced him with JFA technical director Akira Nishino. With Nishino having only three friendly games to implement his style of play into the team before they go up against Columbia, Poland and Senegal in Russia in two months, optimism has to be low on the ground amongst the football fans in Japan.
Shortly before his sacking, there had been media reports that Halilhodzic had lost control of the dressing room, and Nishino must first and foremost focus his priorities on unifying his team. If Japan head into the competition this summer not mentally strong and determined, they could very quickly find themselves overrun by the attack heavy opposition in their group, and could easily finish bottom of the pile.
- Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) – While Japan lack the star quality of many other World Cup teams, they do have a supply of reliable players with European footballing experience, with the most notable of these being Kagawa. The 29 year old midfielder has 89 international caps, and is adored by both his club’s and his country’s fans. With a significant amount of top-level football experience under his belt, Kagawa can be counted on to be the controlling influence in the Japanese game, and it will be interesting to see who wins the midfield battle when he comes up against Columbia’s James Rodriquez.
- Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City) – Former Premier League winner with Leicester in 2015/16, Okazaki is the third all-time top Japanese goalscorer, currently sitting on 50 goals for his country. Tenacious and enthusiastic, Okazaki’s never-give-up attitude makes him a nuisance for defences, as he is an expert at chasing down balls and putting opposition defenders under constant pressure, forcing mistakes. If he can replicate his form for Leicester this season at the finals in Russia, he may be able to force a few goals against questionable Polish and Senegalese defences.
Akira Nishino – Appointed this month to replace Vahid Halilhodzic, Nishino has a tough task on his hands bringing Japan to this World Cup. With only three games in charge before the competition kicks off, it is unlikely that Nishino will be able to implement his desired playstyle into the team. Indeed, he would be much better off trying to generate a sense of unity and confidence in his players if they want to have any success in the summer.