Form and Prospects
Asian champions Japan were the first side to qualify for the finals in Brazil with their fast flowing football, led by Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, too much for their regional opponents and raising hopes of a World Cup breakthrough.
Head coach Alberto Zaccheroni had demanded tougher friendly fixtures in preparation for the finals and the JFA delivered but the sterner opposition only heightened concerns about their defensive frailty and damaged confidence.
A shock qualifying loss to Jordan, three defeats at the Confederations Cup in June and friendly reversals by Uruguay, Bulgaria, Serbia and Belarus resulted in the JFA coming out to defend Zaccheroni's position amid rumours he might be replaced.
A strong fightback in the 2-2 draw with Netherlands on November 16, a match they could have won, and a 3-2 win away to heavily fancied Belgium prove that the Asian champions should not be taken lightly in Brazil and can now trouble the best.
However, a weak central defence is likely to be their undoing when they face the top sides in Brazil, while none of the strikers have staked a strong enough claim for the starting berth. They will be far more entertaining than they were four years ago in South Africa but might not emulate the last 16 success.
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
The hugely experienced 60-year-old Italian has enjoyed a productive three-year stint with Japan but his 2011 Asian Cup success has only raised expectations.
Japan have never gone beyond the last 16 in their four previous World Cup appearances but he has the tactical know-how and the creative talents to make that happen in Brazil.
He has chopped and changed from the 3-4-3 formation that brought him the Serie A title with AC Milan to a 4-2-3-1 set-up in qualifying which gave Kagawa, Honda and Inter Milan fullback Yuto Nagatomo room to attack.
That might have to be changed again, though, to offer greater protection to a porous defence, but if anyone can fix a defaulting defensive line it is the wily Italian.
Key player: Keisuke Honda
Kagawa may garner the most attention courtesy of his move to Manchester United, but Honda is central to all of Japan's attacking plans.
The bleach-blond 27-year-old is Zaccheroni's playmaker, forcing Kagawa to attack from the left which the United player has voiced his displeasure at.
Calm and assured in possession, Honda is a great reader of the game and astute at bringing team mates into play, while his dribbling is a hot commodity in a passing dominated era.
He boasts a strong goal scoring record thanks mainly to his work at set pieces and was named player of the tournament as Japan won the 2011 Asian Cup. He will leave CSKA Moscow in January to join AC Milan.
How they qualified
Asian zone: Final Group B winners
World Cup record
Previous appearances in finals: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best performance: Last 16 (2002 and 2010)
- Sports & Recreation
- Keisuke Honda
- Shinji Kagawa
- Alberto Zaccheroni