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World Cup: The pressure is on for Japan’s new boss Nishino
June 12, 2018 | 2:44 PM
by Reuters
Japan coach Akira Nishino watches as Hiroki Sakai kicks the ball during a training session in Seefeld, Austria. Photo - Reuters
 
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JAPAN’S relatively routine build-up to the World Cup was shaken dramatically by the surprise decision to fire head coach Vahid Halilhodzic two months before the finals in Russia.

After leading Japan to their sixth consecutive World Cup, the Bosnian was dismissed and replaced with former Japan Football Association (JFA) Technical Director Akira Nishino.

The pressure is now on Nishino, seen very much as the company man within the JFA, to rebuild the fractious relationship between the players and coaching staff and justify the decision taken by his superiors to change things so close to the finals.

Part of the reason behind Halilhodzic’s removal was a run of poor performances in the friendlies since the team qualified for Russia in August.



The JFA and Nishino have both spoken of the communication gap between the Bosnian and many of his players being the reason for this poor form and the new head coach’s priority will be getting senior players back on side.

Nishino has just three friendly matches to prepare his side for arguably the World Cup’s most even group. They host Ghana on May 30, visit Switzerland on June 8 and play Paraguay in Austria four days later.

Although Japan will be pleased to have avoided the more dangerous top seeds, their Group H rivals Poland, Senegal and Colombia all possess the quality to hurt the Blue Samurai.

The 63-year-old Nishino can rely on a wealth of experience in a defence that conceded only seven goals in their 10 qualifying matches.

Hiroki Sakai of Marseille, Gotoku Sakai of Hamburg, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and international cap centurion Yuto Nagamoto of Galatasaray all bring top-flight European experience to a backline that will be hard to break down.

However, as Japan will face some of the world’s best attacking players in their group - namely Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Colombia’s James Rodriguez - it seems inevitable that the Blue Samurai will need to score goals of their own to progress to the second round for the third time in their history.

The two Shinjis - Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Okazaki of Leicester City - will prove pivotal if Nishino’s vision of attacking football is to be realised.

Okazaki, who is Japan’s third highest goalscorer in history, has scored only seven goals this season for Leicester as he has struggled to hold down a starting role.

However, under Nishino the onus will likely be on him, supported by Kagawa and stalwart Keisuke Honda, to unlock opposing defences.

Factbox

FIFA ranking: 61

Previous tournaments

Japan have appeared at the World Cup five times, making their debut at the 1998 tournament in France. Since then, they have been a permanent fixture at the tournament. They have reached the round of 16 on two occasions, most recently in South Africa in 2010. They also reached the second round when they co-hosted the 2002 tournament with South Korea, losing 1-0 to Turkey.

Coach: Akira Nishino

Nishino took over as Japan head coach on April 9 after the surprise sacking of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, who had steered Japan to the finals in Russia. The 63-year-old made 12 appearances for the Blue Samurai as a player yet is most famous in his home country for coaching the Japan side who defeated Brazil at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He has promised to play an attacking brand of football and to repair the fractured relationship between the coaching staff and the players.

Key players

Shinji Kagawa: The Borussia Dortmund midfielder has struggled to emulate the form that made him Japan’s star man going into Brazil 2014, but his club performances improved after coach Peter Stoeger took over the German side and the 29-year-old has since looked back to his best.

A recent injury has hampered his World Cup preparations but with 29 goals in 89 appearances for Japan, Kagawa remains the man most likely to unlock opposing defences in Russia.

Yuto Nagatomo: Cap centurion Nagamoto, currently plying his trade for Galatasaray on loan from Inter Milan, is the most experienced member of a resilient Japan defence that conceded only seven goals in their 10 qualifying games. The 31-year-old may not possess the same pace of yesteryear but Nagatomo’s wealth of top-flight European experience could be crucial at the World Cup.

Keisuke Honda: Long Japan’s most famous footballing export, the 31-year-old midfielder can now be found playing for C.F. Pachuca in the Mexican top flight. Despite being somewhat off the radar, the former AC Milan player was recalled for the most recent friendlies. Honda will be a dangerous weapon for Nishino to call on from the bench.

Form guide

Since qualifying, Japan have struggled, losing to Ukraine, Belgium and Brazil and drawing with Mali and Haiti in friendly matches. In these games they conceded 10 goals and scored six.

How they qualified

Japan finished top of a tough Group B in Asian qualifying, ahead of fellow qualifiers Saudi Arabia and Australia. They conceded only seven goals in 10 qualification matches.

Prospects

Japan will count themselves fortunate to have avoided the more dangerous top seeds by being drawn in Group H, alongside Poland. However, Senegal and Colombia, who make up the group, both possess the quality to hurt Japan. If Japan do make it into the second round, they are likely to face England or Belgium from Group G.

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