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Asian Cup 2015: Champions Japan can triumph yet again

Japan were jubilant back in 2011, when they lifted the Asian Cup for a record fourth time, making them one of the most successful footballing nations on the continent.

That pride was short-lived, however, as Samurai Blue’s homeland heroes failed to live up to high expectations in Brazil 2014.

Having qualified for the previous five World Cups and illustrating grit, focus and determination to make the last 16 in 2002 and 2010, the bar had been raised to perhaps unreasonable levels in 2014.

Much excitement surrounded the emergence of now Bundesliga stars Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, with the duo expected to provide cult hero Keisuke Honda with enough support to transform Japan into a true footballing force, rather than rootable Asian underdogs.

It wasn’t to be, however, as Samurai Blue exited Brazil in the group stages with little more than a whimper, leaving boss Alberto Zaccheroni to fall on his sword.

The gutsy and spirited performances that earned the Land of the Rising Sun much neutral support throughout previous World Cup campaigns had been mostly absent, supposedly sacrificed for a more aesthetic style.

Now a new era dawns for the current Asian Cup holders, and what better way for new coach Javier Aguirre to cement his status than by restoring Japan’s?

The East Asian nation have always been at their most formidable in this competition, emerging victorious in four of their last six attempts, and are understandably favourites to triumph again.

Despite hopes that Aguirre’s Samurai Blue squad would welcome a host of fresh faces, the former Mexico manager has largely kept faith with Japan’s experienced, if disappointing, World Cup representatives.

Switzerland-based strikers Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Kubo both made the provisional squad but missed out in the final selection, as did Arsenal-owned wingman Ryo Miyaichi, illustrating the depth of options available.

Japan will instead rely upon regular leading men Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki in attack, likely joined by FC Tokyo’s 22-year-old starlet Yoshinori Muto.

Honda will once again be the instigator of his nation’s offence and defence of their cup, despite often being shunted into a variety of positions to fill gaps or accomadate others.

The AC Milan man’s versatility appears to have finally paid off this term, however, with the 65-capped star bagging six goals and three assists for the Rossoneri in 16 games.

Fellow big-names Kagawa and Okazaki will also be expected to step up after poor World Cup performances.

Crafty Kagawa’s return to Borussia Dortmund was supposed to reignite the maestro’s career after a lacklustre stint at Manchester United.

The German giants have slumped to 17th in the Bundesliga table, however, with the 25-year-old contributing just one strike, so he has much to prove in Australia.

Okazaki, meanwhile, has continued to grab goals for Mainz and will form part of a top class, Europe-based spine including skipper Makoto Hasebe, Inter Milan’s flying full back Yuto Nagatomo and Southampton centre half Maya Yoshida.

Although veteran Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo, Japan’s own Andrea Pirlo, will certainly be flying the flag for domestic stars.

With undoubtedly the strongest squad overall, Japan should be eager to illustrate their prowess and re-assert their authority in Australia, after downing the hosts in their warm-up to the tournament.

Samurai Blue, and their fervent travelling support, complete with litter pickers, will be the ones for contenders the Socceroos, Iran and South Korea to beat, but must prove they are over their World Cup hangover.