Japan World Cup 2022 preview – prediction, fixtures, squad, star players

Ahead of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, Sports Mole previews the chances of one of Asia’s greatest hopes, Japan, competing at a seventh consecutive World Cup.

Now firmly established as World Cup regulars, Japan enter their seventh straight finals quietly confident with an exciting young squad, arguably better than the side which were moments from reaching the quarter-finals in Russia four years ago.

They also come into this tournament with a bit more stability, after the Japanese FA sacked the manager Vahid Halilhodzic just weeks before the 2018 finals; their current boss Hajime Moriyasu has had a full four-year cycle with this group, after replacing Akira Nishinowho took temporary charge in Russia.

© Reuters

If anything should be said about the Japanese national team though, it is that they should never be underestimated, and Belgium are one side who can vouch for that after very narrowly eliminating the Asian outfit in the previous World Cup.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Japan’s chances at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.


GROUP

After qualifying for the knockout stages in three of the last five World Cups, Japan have become Asia’s most fancied side, but even the most optimistic Samurai Blue supporter will admit they have a mountain to climb to make it out of Group E this year.

World Cup Group E

With two of the previous three World Cup champions in their group, Spain and Germany, Japan will have to cause one or two huge upsets if they are to replicate their achievement from four years ago.

Costa Rica are their other Group E opponents, but they are substantially weaker than the side that shocked the world in 2014, so Japan will hope they can take three points from that encounter to keep their chances alive going into the final match.

FIXTURES

November 23: Germany vs. Japan (1pm, Khalifa International Stadium, Doha)
November 27: Japan vs. Costa Rica (10am, Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
December 1: Japan vs. Spain (7pm, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Rayyan)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Japan cruised through both stages of AFC qualifying with consummate ease, as their first-round group paired them with minnows Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Myanmar.

Covid restrictions around Asia in 2021 meant many of their scheduled away matches were still played in Japan, as groups were centralized in one region to avoid excess travel, giving Japan home advantage more often than not.

Progression was never in doubt as the Samurai Blue won eight out of eight, scoring 46 goals in the process, including devastating victories over Mongolia (14-0) and Myanmar (10-0).

Japan players pose with banners as they celebrate after the match on March 24, 2022© Reuters

The next phase is where the pressure is cranked up, with two automatic qualification spots available, and they would have to battle against Saudi Arabia, Australia, Oman, China and Vietnam for one.

Despite a shock opening defeat at home to Oman, and a loss in Saudi Arabia on gameweek three, Japan took advantage of an underperforming Australian side to storm through qualifying and reach the finals comfortably with six wins from their final seven games.

With 58 goals scored across their 18 qualifiers, no nation got close to matching their attacking returns, and Japan should be the most exciting Asian outfit on the eye in Qatar.


RECENT FORM

A 1-1 draw with Vietnam after qualification was already secured aside, Japan sealed their place in Qatar in style, winning five in a row without conceding.

Friendlies over the summer also brought much encouragement as they swept aside Paraguay 4-1 in a dominant display, while only narrowly losing to a full-strength Brazil side who entered the World Cup as favourites.

Japan's Daniel Schmidt celebrates with team mates after saving a penalty from Ecuador's Enner Valencia in September 2022© Reuters

The formerly-annual Kirin Cup, hosted in Japan, made a return after a six-year hiatus soon after and brought mixed results for Moriyasu’s side.

Another 4-1 victory, this time over Ghana, raised confidence once more, but they were swiftly brought crashing down to Earth after Tunisia romped to a 3-0 win in Suita.

Their defensive stability was back in full flow in September’s internationals though, as back-to-back clean sheets helped them to a win over the USA and a draw with Ecuador.


SQUAD

Japan players pose for a team group photo before the match in September 2022© Reuters

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Strasbourg), Shuichi Gonda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Daniel Schmidt (Sint-Truidense)

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Tokyo FC), Maya Yoshida (Schalke 04), Hiroki Sakai (Urawa Red Diamonds), Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Miki Yamane (Kawasaki Frontale), Ko Itakura (Borussia Monchengladbach), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal), Hiroki Ito (Stuttgart)

Midfielders: Gaku Shibasaki (Leganes), Wataru Endo (Stuttgart), Junya Ito (Reims), Takumi Minamino (Monaco), Hidemasa Morita (Sporting Lisbon), Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt), Yuki Soma (Nagoya Grampus), Kaoru Mitoma (Brighton & Hove Albion), Ritsu Doan (Freiburg), Ao Tanaka (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad)

Forwards: Takuma Asano (Bochum), Daizen Maeda (Celtic), Ayase Ueda (Cercle Brugge), Shuto Machino (Shonan Bellmare)


STAR PLAYER – TAKUMI MINAMINO

Japan's Takumi Minamino in September, 2022© Reuters

Now in his ninth season of European club football, Takumi Minamino has had a stuttering spell since leaving Red Bull Salzburg for Liverpool in 2020, but the skillful attacker who always had a keen eye for goal during his spell in England, remains a vital asset to the Japanese national side.

His ability to score was apparent during qualifying, as his 10 goals in 15 matches ranked him high in the charts, and even though he was very rarely given a chance in the Premier League at Anfield, Minamino scored seven goals on Liverpool’s run to FA and EFL Cup success last season.

Often found out wide for his country, Minamino is more of a goalscorer than a creator, instead leaving playmaking duties to the likes of Daichi Kamada, Takefusa Kubo and Junya Ito, and the Monaco man may need to step up again in front of goal following the omission of the regular starter Yuya Osaka up front in their 26-man squad.

His vast Champions League and Europa League experience should count for something when Japan faces Germany and Spain too, and the added bonus of big-game experience could be vital as, 2021-22 Europa League-winner Kamada aside, that is something this youthful squad lacks.


MANAGER – HAJIME MORIYASU

Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu before the match in September 2022© Reuters

A former Japanese international, Hajime Moriyasu has worked his way up through the ranks and now has the opportunity to show off his know-how on the world’s biggest stage.

Five years at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the J League saw him win three titles and lead the Japanese champions to a third-place finish at the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup as hosts, but results gradually tailed off and he left the club in 2017.

After being Nishino’s assistant in 2018, he took over the national team job following their last-16 exit, and led them to the 2019 AFC Cup final, where they surprisingly lost to upcoming World Cup hosts Qatar.

That was a first-ever continental cup final defeat for Japan, and despite a comfortable qualification for these finals, Moriyasu could be on borrowed time after failing to lead the Japanese Olympic team to a medal at their home games last summer.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Last 16 (2002, 2010, 2018)

Belgium's Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel and Thomas Meunier celebrate after the match as Japan's Gen Shoji and Yuya Osako look dejected at the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

After not qualifying for a single World Cup until 1998, following nine failed attempts in qualifying, Japan have now become one of the sides almost guaranteed to be in the draw for the finals every four years.

The gradual increase in Asian participants over the last few decades has helped in qualification, but there is no doubt that Japan deserves to be held in regard as one of the strongest outfits outside Europe.

Their performance in 2018, albeit controversial, was certainly their best, when a heartbreaking injury-time Nacer Chadli the winner saw Belgium knock them out in the last 16, after being 2-0 up with 20 minutes remaining.

Their progression through the group was steeped in controversy though, as they casually passed the ball round their own defense while 1-0 down to Poland, knowing that they would progress if things stayed as they were due to them having a better disciplinary record over Senegal .

Their gamesmanship was greeted with a chorus of boos and condemnation from the footballing world, but that was soon forgotten thanks to their courageous display against Belgium.

Turkey and Paraguay, in 2002 and 2010 respectively, have been the other nations to dash their dreams in World Cups gone by at the same stage.


PREDICTION

Japan have shown very encouraging form in the last couple of years, but given the tough nature of their group, the Samurai Blue will need to go above and beyond to cause a huge upset if they want to make it out of the group phase.

VERDICT: Third in Group E


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