Japan will start their sixth consecutive World Cup knowing they will probably need to topple at least one of Poland and Colombia in Group H if they are to reach the second round for the third time.
Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Japan drew their opening qualifying game in the Asian section – a goalless draw at home to Singapore – but won their next seven matches in a row without conceding a goal, and scoring 27 times, to reach the third round.
There, they lost their opening match against the UAE but won five and drew one of the next six to pull clear at the top of the group. A 2-0 win at home to Australia back in August sealed top spot in the group, though they lost their final group game to Saudi Arabia to ensure they only finished one point ahead of them and Australia.
Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and have appeared at every tournament since – including the 2002 tournament which they co-hosted. They lost in the group stages in 1998, 2006 and 2014 – all without winning a game – but won two matches both at home and in South Africa in 2010 in between those tournaments. On both the latter two occasions, however, they lost in the second round.
Japan’s biggest news prior to the World Cup was off the pitch – the sacking of Vahid Halihodzic as manager just two months out from the start of the World Cup. Ironically, he was sacked in similar circumstances by Ivory Coast in 2010. The one World Cup he went to, last time in Brazil, saw him take Algeria to the second round – making his sacking by Japan even more bizarre. Either way, Akira Nishino had to select a provisional World Cup squad before he had chance to take charge of a match. The change in manager allowed Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki to return after being overlooked for recent squads by Halihodzic. Yasuyuki Konno, Toshihiro Aoyama and Yu Kobayashi all miss out through injury, however.
Shinji Okazaki returns as one of Japan's greatest players - the Leicester striker has scored 50 international goals in 110 appearances - making him third highest scorer and fourth most-capped player in Japanese history. Veteran forward Keisuke Honda has 36 from 94 appearances, meanwhile.
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Japan suffered a dip in form, starting with a 4-1 defeat to South Korea before Christmas for the domestic-based team selected for the EAFF E-1 Football Championship. This was followed by a 1-1 draw with Mali and a 2-1 loss to Ukraine, which prompted the Japanese FA to take drastic measures and change manager. Akira Nishino lost his first game in charge too, however, as Japan suffered a 2-0 defeat to Ghana in Yokohama, and they also lost by the same score to Switzerland. Nishino’s first win in charge came in Japan’s final warm-up match, however – a 4-2 defeat of Austria thanks to two goals from Takashi Inui, an own goal and a late Shinji Kagawa strike.
1 – Eiji Kawashima (Metz) – Age 35 – 84 caps/0 goals
12 – Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka) – Age 32 – 5 caps/0 goals
23 – Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol) – Age 23 – 4 caps/0 goals
2 – Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers) – Age 23 – 4 caps/0 goals
3 – Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers) – Age 25 – 12 caps/1 goal
5 – Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray) – Age 31 – 105 caps/3 goals
6 – Wataru Endo (Urawa Red Diamonds) – Age 25 – 12 caps/0 goals
19 – Hiroki Sakai (Marseille) – Age 28 – 43 caps/0 goals
20 – Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Red Diamonds) – Age 31 – 32 caps/4 goals
21 – Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg) – Age 27 – 41 caps/0 goals
22 – Maya Yoshida (Southampton) – Age 29 – 82 caps/10 goals
4 – Keisuke Honda (Pachuca) – Age 31 – 95 caps/36 goals
7 – Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe) – Age 26 – 18 caps/3 goals
8 – Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf) – Age 27 – 33 caps/6 goals
10 – Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) – Age 29 – 92 caps/30 goals
11 – Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf) – Age 26 – 24 caps/3 goals
14 – Takashi Inui (Betis) – Age 30 – 27 caps/2 goals
16 – Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka) – Age 27 – 42 caps/2 goals
17 – Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt) – Age 34 – 110 caps/2 goals
18 – Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale) – Age 25 – 5 caps/0 goals
9 – Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City) – Age 32 – 113 caps/50 goals
13 – Yoshinori Muto (Mainz 05) – Age 25 – 24 caps/2 goals
15 – Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen) – Age 28 – 29 caps/7 goals
Despite their change of manager and the potential recalls and returns from injury for experienced campaigners like Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida, Japan still remain outsiders in Group H.
With Poland and Colombia likely to qualify for the last-16, it is between Senegal and Japan to avoid fourth place. Japan are 2/1 to reach the last-16 but unlikely to upset the odds. Their friendly defeat to Mali does not bode well for avoiding bottom place either, given Senegal’s superiority in African qualifying compared to Mali. Japan are 6/4 to finish bottom of Group H, which is quite generous on reflection.
Japan have exited in the group stage without winning a game in three of their five World Cup appearances, and unless they overcome Senegal in Russia, it could well become four from six this time around.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions