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    Japan

    Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni promised the Asian champions will fear nobody at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ as he named a full-strength 23-man squad, spearheaded by Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. The 61-year-old Italian backed his Blue Samurai to give Côte d'Ivoire a severe test in their opening game in Brazil on 14 June, insisting that reputations will count for nothing.

    "We will respect our opponents but certainly won't be frightened," Zaccheroni told reporters a little over a month before Japan square off against the West Africans. "If you go into a game with fear, you're in trouble. We need to go in prepared and bring our own qualities. We have a lot of attacking players."

    Asian Cup-holders Japan also face Colombia and Greece in Group C, which on paper gives them a decent chance of progressing to the knockout stage, as they did in 2010. "I've had the squad in my head a while but I wanted to have a look at as many players as possible," said Zaccheroni, who expressed confidence that captain Makoto Hasebe and right-back Atsuto Uchida would recover from injury in time for the tournament.

    "It was a struggle to get the list down to 23. I wanted to call up (FIFA president) Sepp Blatter and ask him to let me pick more. But this group of players knows how I want them to play tactically and understands the team ethic."

    Zaccheroni sprung a surprise in recalling striker Yoshito Okubo from the international wilderness, his name causing an audible gasp from the press throng. "He's got experience, knows the game and can bring us a little something different," said the Italian. "It's a great group, and we're determined to show the strides Asian football has made. Yes, we will be judged on results but if we concentrate on playing our game, I believe the results will come."

    Japan will again rely heavily on attacking pair Kagawa and Honda in Brazil. "Shinji is an impact player for Japan," said Zaccheroni, adamant Kagawa's frustrating season on the fringes at Manchester United would have no bearing. "He always does the job asked. Honda, we know, has the character and power to grab the team by the scruff of the neck. We hope he can do the same again."

    Japan stormed through Asian qualifying to secure a fifth successive World Cup appearance, finishing four points clear of Australia at the top of their final-round group after winning five and losing just one of their eight games. Three defeats at last year's Confederations Cup raised concerns, but with a driving force of AC Milan's Honda, Kagawa and Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo, and a clinical finisher in Shinji Okazaki, Japan will be disappointed not to reach the last 16.

    Unlike previous World Cups, there were no bold targets set by Zaccheroni. "We need to make sure our conditioning is perfect," he said. "I don't wish to make concrete predictions, and if we lose we'll take it on the chin. But if we play to our potential we have a chance. We're positive. Let's see how far it takes us."

    Japan squad


    Goalkeepers:
    Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege/BEL), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)

    Defenders:
    Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan/ITA), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke/GER), Maya Yoshida (Southampton/ENG), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96/GER), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart/GER)

    Midfielders:
    Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg/GER), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan/ITA), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United/ENG)

    Forwards:
    Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz/GER), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg/GER), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F-Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich/GER)

    * Squad lists are only official once they have been confirmed and published by FIFA on 16 May at 12:00 CET.

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    Japan toil to beat Cyprus in warm-up

    Defender Atsuto Uchida spared Japan's blushes with a 43rd-minute winner as the Asian champions beat Cyprus 1-0 in their final home World Cup warm-up game on Tuesday.

    Japan, who looked heavy-legged after a punishing training camp last week, face Ivory Coast in their opening game at the World Cup in Brazil on 14 June. Right-back Uchida broke the deadlock in Saitama when he stabbed home the loose ball after Shinji Kagawa's close-range effort had been blocked, registering only his second goal in 66 internationals.

    "It was nice to score coming back from injury," said Uchida, who celebrated his strike by sprinting to the touchline to hug the Japan coach, Alberto Zaccheroni.

    "I didn't know if I would be fit in time," added Uchida, returning from a lengthy spell out with a thigh problem. "I really wanted to get on the scoresheet tonight."

    With Cyprus defending resolutely, a clever step-over from Kagawa brought the crowd of 58,000 to their feet, only for Keisuke Honda to waste Japan's only other chance of a scrappy first half. Kagawa and captain Makoto Hasebe, himself working his way back to fitness after a knee problem, went close as Japan showed more urgency after the break.

    Ultimately, the home side lacked the cutting edge that Zaccheroni had demanded before the match. "We weren't as sharp as we can be but the players kept probing," said the Italian, who has stubbornly refused to make any World Cup predictions.

    "I'm not the sort of person to make promises about results. But I do demand the players put in the effort required to get results. We will be 100 per cent on 14 June."

    Japan, who also play Greece and Colombia in Group C, have further friendlies against Costa Rica on 2 June and Zambia on 6 June in Tampa before flying to Brazil. Japan stormed through Asian qualifying to secure a fifth successive World Cup appearance, finishing four points clear of Australia at the top of their final-round group.

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    Zaccheroni turns up heat on Japan preparations

    Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is turning up the heat in a pre-FIFA World Cup™ fitness push and star strikers Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda face a key test Monday against Costa Rica. The Asian champions were welcomed into their Florida beachfront resort Sunday as players try and adjust their bodies to the hot and humid conditions they will face when they arrive in Brazil next Saturday.

    "It's not easy to play our best in the World Cup so we have to adjust to this temperature and humidity," Zaccheroni said. "The climate is the same as Brazil. Plus I like the beaches."

    The Italian boss, who guided AC Milan to a pair of Italian Serie A titles, also likes Manchester United forward Kagawa and AC Milan striker Honda, but he plans to work them into shape in friendlies against Costa Rica and Zambia on Friday at nearby Tampa. "Honda and Kagawa didn't have enough playing time in Europe so I'll have them playing for many minutes," he said. "I'm not guaranteeing them to play for 90 minutes but I'll have them play as many minutes as possible.

    "Honda, as well as Kagawa and others who didn't have enough playing time in Europe, we will have to check them and their condition very carefully." Kagawa welcomes the challenge the US training week brings.

    "I have a strong will for this championship and I should be the one to lead the team," Kagawa said. "As time is limited, I can't do any special preparation, but I am determined to prepare mentally and physically and get myself ready with the best condition for the first match."

    Japan will compete in Group C at the World Cup against Colombia, Greece and Côte d'Ivoire, opening against the African side on 14 June. Honda was contained by Cyprus in Japan's 1-0 victory in a sendoff friendly, but Zaccheroni was confident the blond finisher will be ready for the World Cup.

    "I believe he understands my expectations," Zaccheroni said. "We will focus on the actual World Cup matches together."

    Samurai Blue set for tune-up
    Japan's World Cup warm-up foes include teams with similar styles to their Brazil foes, including former Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto guiding Costa Rica, but Zaccheroni downplayed the edge his side might offer for Los Ticos, who have Italy in their group.

    "Even though I'm Italian, we have a lot of different systems and strategies differ with the coach, so I'm not sure how the strategies can help you for the national team," Zaccheroni said. "They are in good shape and play really hard. They have a lot of players who play in Europe. They have a lot of strength. In the World Cup, they have a tough group but as long as they maintain their condition, they will play well."

    Zaccheroni also stressed that improving fitness and monitoring playing time will be greater concerns for him than winning friendlies. "I'm trying to focus on the players' condition and playing time during the game instead of a good result, to prepare the best for the World Cup," he said.

    "I understand people expect the good results but I have to respect the players' condition and playing time so they can play their best at the World Cup. This is what we want most in the match."

    But accurate passing and team concepts are becoming a bigger piece of Japan's work this week ahead of specific notes on opponents next week. "We're shifting from simple physical intensity to strategy and team concepts," Zaccheroni said. "We will provide the players information about opponents gradually."

    Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida, Southampton defender Maya Yoshida and captain Makoto Hasebe, a midfielder for Nurnberg, are all back from injury and well, but Stuttgart defender Gotoku Sakai is out with a knee injury. "He has been separated from the team," Zaccheroni said. "I hope there is no severe problem for him."

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    Okubo's late goal saves Japan

    Zambia gave Japan a fright in Tampa before the Asian champions earned a 4-3 win in their warm-up friendly last night. Japan fell 2-0 behind during the first half, conceding a close-range header from Christopher Katongo and a sweetly-struck 20-yard strike from Nathan Sinkala. Keisuke Honda's penalty cut the deficit and Shinji Kagawa had a stroke of luck for an equaliser when his apparent cross bypassed everyone on its way into the net.

    Honda prodded Japan in front, only for Zambia's Lubambo Musanda to strike a 25-yard effort that deflected over Shusaku Nishikawa to haul Zambia back to 3-3. Yoshito Okubo pinched a last-gasp winner, showing sharp control to bring down a long pass and composing himself before producing a powerful left-footed finish.

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    Honda: Japan can reach quarter-finals

    Japan's Keisuke Honda has predicted the Asian champions will produce a "miracle" at the FIFA World Cup™ and reach the quarter-finals, local media reported on Monday. Sporting a spiky mohawk haircut, the bleached-blond Honda touched down in Brazil with the Japan squad at the weekend and declared the Blue Samurai were ready to take on the world. "Firstly, we can 100 percent get through our group," Honda said to Japan's Nikkan Sports daily, ahead of Japan's opening game against Ivory Coast on June 14.

    "After that anything can happen at a World Cup. We're good enough now to reach the quarter-finals. Obviously we all need to stay fit but if we do the basics right 100 percent, no mistakes, we can get to the quarter-finals. From there we can make miracles happen." Japan, who also face Greece and Colombia in Group C, underwent intense warm-weather training in southern Japan and Florida before flying to Brazil.

    "I'm not talking idealistically, I'm being realistic," said the AC Milan player. "That's where the past 10 days of training will pay off." Japan's best FIFA World Cup™ performances to date were reaching the Round of 16 as co-hosts with South Korea in 2002 and again four years ago in South Africa. But Honda, who scored twice in Japan's 4-3 win over Zambia in Florida on Friday, remained defiant.

    "Do you believe in miracles or do you make them happen," said the 27-year-old. "If we only believe in miracles and that basis disappears, it will be difficult to get through our group." Should Japan progress, a likely meeting with either Italy, England or Uruguay from Group D awaits them in the Round of 16.

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    Hasebe 'ready to go' for opener

    Japan captain Makoto Hasebe has declared himself "ready to go" for his team's FIFA World Cup™ Group C opener against Côte d'Ivoire in Recife at the weekend, shrugging off worries over a knee injury. "There is no problem [with the knee] and I have been taking part in full training," the FC Nurnberg defensive midfielder said after Wednesday's workout at Japan's World Cup base camp in Itu, near Sao Paulo.

    "Obviously it is the coach that decides but I am ready to go," the 30-year-old added about his chance of making the first team for the match which kicks off at 10pm local time on Saturday, according to Kyodo News. Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has shown great faith in Hasebe since taking over the Blue Samurai after the 2010 FIFA World Cup, depending on him to help fulfil the goal of at least a quarter-final spot in a team packed with talent, including Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda. Hasebe suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee in January. He underwent surgery twice on the knee but played the full 90 minutes in Nurnberg's final game of the season and played the second half in Japan's 1-0 friendly win over Cyprus at home on 27 May.

    But he sat out Japan's last two warm-up matches, in which they beat Costa Rica and Zambia at their training camp in Florida. Hasebe and Stuttgart defender Gotoku Sakai had been the only real injury concerns for Zaccheroni but the Italian tactician now has a fully fit squad. Japan have shown attacking flair, scoring seven goals in the Florida friendlies, but their leaky defence yielded four. Hasebe believes the Ivorians have similar problems. "Ivory Coast are strong in attack but on the other hand they are a bit flimsy in defence," he said. "We are both attacking teams and I think it will be the team with the highest levels of concentration that will come out on top."

    Japan will also face Colombia and Greece in Group C.

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    Yoshida: I dream of exceeding four years ago

    Since Japan first played at a FIFA World Cup™ at France 1998, the landscape of their team has vastly evolved ahead of what will be their fifth consecutive appearance. Where their side once comprised of entirely players within the nation's borders, now more than half their squad can be found dotted around the globe, playing in some of the world's top leagues. One of this star's plying their trade abroad is Maya Yoshida, who passed through the Dutch Eredivisie on his way to joining Southampton in the English Premier League.

    The centre-back is now preparing to take his opening bow at the tournament, when the Samurai Blue kick off in their opening game of Brazil 2014 against Côte d'Ivoire. He sat down with FIFA to talk about the impact of foreign-based team-mates, last year's FIFA Confederation Cup and the inspiration he takes after watching South Africa 2010 from home.

    FIFA TV: Maya, during the 1998 World Cup, no Japanese players were playing in foreign leagues. Now, however, there are 12 players who are playing on abroad. How do you think the Japanese players have changed or developed through playing beyond your own shores?
    Maya Yoshida:
    I feel that being able to compete fiercely with world-class players on a daily basis is very important when entering international competitions. Having those experiences is what has changed the most for me. Compared to four years ago, there have been an increase in the number of Japanese players on foreign teams, and I believe that even more players will be playing abroad after the World Cup.

    Personally, how have you grown through playing in Europe?
    When I play in Japan, I almost always play with Japanese players. However, playing in England and Holland, I had the chance to play with various players, such as players from England and Holland who are physically strong. By changing my environment, playing with European and South American players, which was quite unusual at first, became a normal thing for me. Playing international matches changed from something that was very special and unusual to something that was very normal.

    What kind of influence has Alberto Zaccheroni had on your team?
    I think our coach really understands Japanese people. He helped us to learn how to compete with world-class European teams while still maintaining the Japanese style.

    How did competing in the Confederation's Cup help you to prepare for the World Cup?
    Brazil is the host of both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, and we really got to experience this country, both on and off the pitch. Other than things such as the heat and the environment, we got to experience Brazil in areas outside football such as the food and life inside the hotel. I think the fact that we've experienced this country once already will make a huge difference. Although we didn't get very good results in the Confederation's Cup, I think competing against teams that are said to be the best in the world was a valuable experience for us.

    The Japanse Football Association's motto is Yume wo Chikara ni (Change your dreams into power). What is your dream for the World Cup?
    Out of the huge football-playing population in the world, only a handful can play in this competition. Four years ago, I was watching the World Cup on TV at home and longed to be on the pitch. Achieving better results than the previous World Cup squad is my dream. Actually, it is more of a goal than a dream.

    Is there anything that you recall from back when you were watching the World Cup on TV in your home?
    Back then, Japan had achieved better results in the competition than people had expected. That was the year that many players I had experience of playing with in Japan showed their talent, such as [Keisuke] Honda and [Eiji] Kawashima. So, the World Cup felt like something that was very close to me. That was when playing in the World Cup changed from an abstract dream to a concrete goal within me. What was a dream four years ago is now changing into a goal, now that I am actually in Brazil.

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    Kawashima: We must change our mindset

    Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima has insisted Japan still believe in themselves as they prepare for a must-win game to keep their FIFA World Cup™ hopes alive. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni admitted he could be forced into a radical rethink after a 2-1 loss to Côte d'Ivoiret on Saturday, during which the Asian champions took the lead only to see the Africans hit back with two goals. The veteran Italian coach had some strong words, saying he expected more from his players, who were out-fought in Recife by the Ivorians. Japan next face Greece in Natal on Thursday before tackling Colombia in Cuiaba on 24 June,

    "It's important that we are fresh for the next game," said Kawashima. "We have to change our mindset for the next game. We just have to give 100 per cent to win the game." "We have a good group and we have confidence as well, so we can't lose our next game. We believe in ourselves." Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa was asked whether it would benefit Japan to play Greece next as opposed to Group C leaders Colombia, who may have already qualified by the time the teams meet. But he said the order of games did not matter. When questioned about whether he felt fresh after not featuring regularly for United last season, Kagawa said it was difficult to compare the two situations: "It's different playing for a club team and the national team."

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    Honda: Possession is key

    Japan talisman Keisuke Honda says the side must try to dominate possession if they are to keep their FIFA World Cup™ hopes alive after a defeat in their Group C opener. Honda gave the Asian champions the lead against Côte d'Ivoire on Saturday but, inspired by Didier Drogba, the Africans hit back with two goals to leave the Blue Samurai's tournament hopes in the balance. Alberto Zaccheroni's side cannot afford to slip up in Natal on Thursday when they meet Greece, who lost their first match 3-0 to Colombia. Honda, who plays for AC Milan, insisted that despite their disappointing start, Japan, ranked 46th in the world, could hold their own against their group rivals.

    "Possession, that is our strength," said the 28-year-old, who has 57 caps and 23 international goals under his belt. "When we have the ball we just need to keep the ball and not give it away easily. When we do lose the ball we should press immediately. That is our philosophy. The last game we lost the ball too easily so that is how we spent a lot of energy in the first half, that is the point. That is why we must concentrate on keeping the ball."

    Despite the pressure, there was a mood of calm on Monday as the players were put through their paces at their sun-bathed training camp in Itu, outside Sao Paulo. Honda said despite the disappointment of the defeat, the squad was fit and confident about turning around their fortunes. "We still have opportunities," said the attacking midfielder, adding a key element of his role was guiding his less-experienced team-mates. Japan reached the last 16 in South Africa four years ago before losing to Paraguay on penalties. Honda played a key role in that success, bagging the only goal in Japan's opener against Cameroon, and scoring a long-range free-kick in the victory over Denmark. Following the defeat to Côte d'Ivoire in Recife, veteran Italian coach Zaccheroni said he expected more from his players, who struggled to compete physically with the African side. He said he could be forced into a radical rethink to salvage his team's FIFA World Cup hopes. Japan's final group match is against Colombia on 24 June in Cuiaba.

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    Kawashima: Japan will attack

    Japan’s players are elegant on the ball. The Asian champions are exquisite at the short-passing game and they paint geometric patterns all over the pitch, but they have a fatal flaw. Small in stature and lightweight in defence, they were overpowered by hard-charging Côte d'Ivoire in their opener in Recife. Though they started well, taking an early lead through the sumptuous attacking triangle of AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and Shinji Okazaki, they were unable to handle the superior power and speed of the Ivorians. The Japanese defence folded in the face of an African storm and they were overrun. They conceded two goals in two second-half minutes and all the stimulation of their attacking football was undone.

    “For four years now we have focused on attack,” Eiji Kawashima, Japan’s goalkeeper and the man with the best view of this Japanese side’s strength and weaknesses, told FIFA.com. “We want to keep the ball and move it forward, using all of our qualities and technical ability to score goals. This is how we will play,” he said defiantly. “We will attack.”

    Imperfect beauty
    Wabi-Sabi
    is a Japanese concept of finding beauty in things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It celebrates humanness and melancholy, defies perfection and embraces the inevitability of death. In their first game against the Ivorians, Japan were a team beautifully imperfect and incomplete. They mesmerised with their attack, but they wilted like a dying flower at the back. This Japan team is, unsurprisingly, influenced by traditions of collective participation and unselfish teamwork. They flirted with a defensive approach four years ago in South Africa, but they came up short and have discarded the notion. They lost in the Round of 16 on penalties to Paraguay, a team that has defending in its veins.

    But now, under Italian tactician Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan are gambling on attack and playing to their strengths. They are putting all of their effort into keeping the ball and turning possession into goals, and turning those goals into wins. “This is the way Japan should play,” said Kawashima, fluent in four languages and a sturdy custodian for Belgian giants Standard Liege. He is also the last line of defence, and the man likely to suffer most for Japan’s swash-buckling approach.
    “Japanese players have very good technique and the agility to play fast,” he added. “This is the way of football that is comfortable and natural to us.”

    New champions of romantic football
    There is something romantic about Japan’s attack-minded crusade here in Brazil and it’s bound to win over local fans predisposed to recklessly beautiful football. They are playing in a country with the largest number of Japanese residents outside of Japan and one in an undying love affair with the jogo bonito. It is the perfect venue for a quixotic charge.

    “It’s my duty to support the team when we struggle,” the goalkeeper said, already preparing mentally for the second game against Greece in Natal. “My role is to stop the opponent’s shots, and I try to support from behind so the forward players can go right for goal.”

    Kawashima, though a net-minder and rooted to his penalty area, considers himself a part of this attacking team concept. “It may sound strange, but I have to do my part to begin the attacks,” he said, taking pains to point out the collective approach, the all-for-one mentality, in the team. “The biggest thing for us is not technique or experience or even goal-scoring, but it is our togetherness,” said Kawashima, the man at the heart of Japan’s inspiring imperfection. “As Japanese people, as Japanese players, we try to do everything for the team. This is the most important quality. It is our balance and our strength. We believe in ourselves.”

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