FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan picks five players that Japan need firing on all cylinders if they are to have any success at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
For quite some time now, Japan has always been mentioned as one of Asia’s strongest national sides but there is a feeling that they are presently at a crossroad.
Following a disappointing 2014 World Cup which saw them bow out at the group stage with just one point from three matches, the Samurai Blue also disappointed with their quarter-final exit at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup and were not as dominant as would have been expected throughout qualifying for Russia 2018.
Even now, with the biggest tournament in world football about to kick off in just over a week, Japan are struggling to find form – having lost five of their last eight outings – under new coach Akira Nishino, who only took over in April following the shock departure of Vahid Halilhodzic.
Still, the Japanese boast a formidable side brimming with quality and are still capable of making quite a stir if everything clicks.
But, in order for that to happen, who needs to step up for the Samurai Blue? FOX Sports Asia singles out five players crucial to Japan’s hopes.
At his peak, Eiji Kawashima was regarded by many as Asia’s best goalkeeper and, while he is now in the twilight of his career, he remains Japan’s safest pair of hands between the sticks.
On paper, his defence – boasting the likes of Maya Yoshida and Yuto Nagatomo – looks impressive but, given the Samurai Blue have not settled on formation yet, there has been much uncertainty at the back in recent friendlies.
Should this persist, Kawashima will need to be at his best to keep out world-class attackers like Robert Lewandowski and James Rodriguez.
Tomoaki Makino is likely to be the only member of the Japan starting XI not currently based in Europe, unless Cerezo Osaka anchorman Hotaru Yamaguchi also gets the nod from Nishino.
This could make opposition teams look at Makino as a weak link to target, but the 31-year-old does have experience playing in the Bundesliga and is more than capable of matching it with the world’s best.
Apart from reading the game well and being strong in the tackle, the Urawa Red Diamonds defender also pops up with the occasional goal and his versatility – also being able to play at left-back – will add to his coach’s options.
Gaku Shibasaki has already shown he has what it takes to perform on the big stage, having netted two goals for Kashima Antlers in the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup final against Real Madrid and was only overshadowed by a hat-trick from a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Since then, the nifty playmaker has started to establish himself in Spain, playing one season in the second tier with Tenerife before earning a move to La Liga outfit Getafe, whom he made 22 appearances for this past campaign.
Although Shibasaki is by no means guaranteed a spot in Japan’s starting XI, he provides them with creativity and an eye for the killer pass that few others can, and could be the key to unlocking opposition defences – even if it is from off the bench.
Shinji Kagawa may not have recently lived up to the lofty expectations he set for himself in years gone by but he remains a genuine game changer, even at World Cup level.
Following Japan’s poor showing four years ago and considering he will be 33 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around, this tournament could be Kagawa’s last chance to really light up the international stage.
With the ball at his feet, the Borussia Dortmund star is still capable of creating magic and his understanding with his colleagues in the attacking third will be crucial for a Samurai Blue outfit who will definitely need to score more than the two goals they did in 2014, if they are to reach the knockout round at least.
In recent World Cups, Japan have always had an ace in the pack – a player with obvious quality but who isn’t quite as famous as the likes of Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki yet, allowing him to be a real surprise package against unsuspecting opponents.
Like Honda in 2010 and Yuya Osako four years later, that man is shaping up to be Yoshinori Muto in 2018.
With three seasons in the Bundesliga under his belt now, the Mainz striker has shown he belongs at the highest level and offers physicality and tenacity not usually associated with Japanese forwards.