World Cup 2018 team preview: Japan is a mystery

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group H is Japan.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group H: 11.8%
Odds to advance: 40%
Odds to win World Cup: 1%
Elo rank: 44
Yahoo Sports power rank: 26

Our writers say: Japan underwhelmed in 2014, and has struggled in the buildup to Russia. It looks like a team caught in between generations at the worst possible time. And there’s uncertainty at the top. Group H is there for the taking, but the Blue Samurai are the least likely of four participants to take it. — Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Shinji Kagawa will be Japan’s premier playmaker at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 6th
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
2014 finish: Group stage (0-1-2)
Qualifying: Topped Asia’s Group B ahead of Saudi Arabia, Australia
Schedule: Colombia (Tuesday, June 19, 11 a.m., Fox), Senegal (Sunday, June 24, 11 a.m., Fox), Poland (Thursday, June 28, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group H preview]

Squad

Manager: Akira Nishino
Captain: Makoto Hasebe (M)
Top players: Shinji Kagawa (M), Keisuke Honda (M), Maya Yoshida (D)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: They still have two of the most technically gifted players in Japanese history, Kagawa and Honda. And they’re probably the most talented Asian team at the tournament.

Why they’ll lose games: They’ve been underwhelming for a while now. So underwhelming that after a 1-1 draw with Mali and a 2-1 loss to Ukraine in March, the federation sacked manager Vahid Halilhodzic. Nishino has taken over with all of two-plus months – and zero friendlies until late May – to prepare, and with an aging squad bereft of identity. The results in dress rehearsals – 2-0 losses to Ghana and Switzerland – have been inauspicious.

How they’ll play: We won’t waste your time with the many possibilities. Nishino is still trying to figure out exactly how he wants to play.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Eiji Kawashima; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi; Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Genki Haraguchi; Yuya Osako.

Osako had to come off in the first half of a recent friendly. If he can’t start the opener, Yoshinori Muto will likely get the call.

In midfield, Hasebe has over 100 caps and remains the skipper, so he’ll likely have a place in the 11. The obvious picks across the attacking midfield line would be Kagawa, Honda and Haraguch, but Kagawa has come off the bench in two recent friendlies. Takashi Usami started both. So there’s still a lot up in the air.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: They’re one of seven World Cup participants to make a managerial change over the past 12 months, and one of four to make one after qualifying. But they were the last of the four to make theirs, and are the only team who, at time of writing, has not scored a single goal under the new boss.

Why to root for them: Because you’ve been a Keisuke Honda stan ever since 2010.

Why to root against them: You’ll get your hopes up because the group is winnable, then quickly realize that Japan is the one team not capable of winning it.

If you’re going to watch one game … Watch the opener against Colombia. There’s a non-zero chance the Japanese suddenly turn into world beaters under Nishino.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews