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World Cup team preview: Japan

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Getting to know…Japan: Owners of five consecutive World Cup berths, Japan is loaded with attacking talent but seems to come up short too many times when the bright lights are on.  They’ve never made it past the Round of 16, but have slowly progressed with each passing World Cup.

Since Japan began seriously competing on the international stage in 1988, they’ve won a record five Asian Cups and thusly made five appearances in the Confederations Cup.  Unfortunately, it seems that – again – the big stage is their nemesis.

The team most recently faltered in last year’s Confederations Cup, losing all three matches against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico – a scary harbinger of what could come of this World Cup if the team isn’t ready.  However, their group stage draw is favorable, and they remain Asia’s best hope for a good showing in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: Japan finished a disappointing second in their first group stage of Asian qualifying behind Uzbekistan, but it was enough to advance them to the final round, where they qualified automatically by topping their group ahead of Australia and Jordan. Over the course of qualifying, they picked up eight wins, three draws, and three losses.

A look at Group C: Japan has an uphill battle ahead, but advancement isn’t completely out of the question with the group they were given.  They just need to beat out Greece and Ivory Coast, both of which have clear weaknesses which could potentially lead to underperformances.

Colombia is the group favorite, but even they are prone to defensive mistakes, and Group C could be one of the more intriguing storylines to watch early in the World Cup for sure.  If the Japanese can come together as a unit and play to every player’s potential, it’s possible they could find themselves in the knockout round.

Game Schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 18:00 ET, Natal: Japan vs. Greece
24 June, 16:00 ET, Cuiaba: Japan vs. Colombia

source: Getty Images
Keisuke Honda, paired with Shinji Kagawa up front, can help the Japanese attack carry the team.

Star player: Keisuke Honda

Sure, Shinji Kagawa plays for Manchester United, but without Keisuke Honda, Japan would be utterly doomed. A recent addition at AC Milan, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder has become the most important player for his national team.

His style is perfect for Serie A, and while he still needs time to settle in after his mid-season switch, he can now play his usual role for the national team, which is not only chance creator but chance finisher.

With 53 caps and 20 goals to his name for Japan, Honda is in his prime and ready to lead the way for the Japanese to a surprise finish.

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

The sixth foreign manager in Japan’s history, the Italian won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999 and is known for his propensity for a 3-4-3 formation.    However, it wouldn’t appear that we will see his trademark this summer, having left out the proper players for the system, including wing-back Tsukasa Shiotani.

After a troubling finish to his Milan tenure, plus very short stops at Juventus, Lazio, Torino, and Inter, Zaccheroni signed on for the Japanese squad in 2010, leading them to an Asian Cup win in 2011.  Japan then became the first nation to officially qualify for Brazil, back in June of 2013.

Zaccheroni is known as a tactical genius, but is often unwilling to modify his techniques to fit his players. It will be interesting to see how he lines the team up in the World Cup knowing his favorite formation is likely a no-show.

Secret Weapon: Passing and creativity

It’s not exactly a secret, but with Kagawa and Honda together in the midfield, and Yasuhito Endo there as well, the midfield is gushing with creativity. Unfortunately, that leads to a bit of a leakage at the back, with an inexperienced back line and little help from the midfielders.

But with that trio of talent leading the way, striker Yoshito Okubo and young attacker Yoichiro Kakitani should have plenty of chances on goal.  Kick TV’s preview video described Japan’s style as “cracked out tiki-taka” and their fast pace can often catch teams off guard. Just try not to cringe when things go wrong at the back.

Prediction: The key for Japan will be trying to outscore the opponent, and a lot hinges on their defense being not terrible.  If Southampton’s Maya Yoshido, Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo, and Schalke’s Atsudo Uchida can hold things together, Japan could surprise the Ivory Coast and Greece. However, it appears they may need some help as well, including a string of bad results for both of the aforementioned countries, other Japan may have too big of a challenge ahead.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.

Emre Can back in the Liverpool side ahead of Europa clash vs. Villarreal

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Emre Can of Liverpool battles for the ball with Idrissa Gana of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park on February 14, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Emre Can has recovered from an ankle injury and will be in Liverpool’s squad for their Europa League semifinal against Villarreal on Thursday night.

The German international has not played since April 14 when he was forced off in the Reds’ wild 4-3 win over Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool prepping for Villarreal ]

Giving his team update on Wednesday, manager Jurgen Klopp said Can is back in the team, although captain Jordan Henderson is still out. The Reds enter the second leg trailing 1-0 on aggregate.

Another positive note out of Melwood was the return of Danny Ings to first-team training. The 23-year-old striker signed with Liverpool last summer, but managed just eight appearances before having his season end to a torn ACL in October. Ings is still far away from his full return, but it was a good sight to see him back on the pitch and making progress in his recovery.

Disappointed Pellegrini rues lack of offense in Man City’s loss to Real

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City reacts during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images )
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Manchester City put in an uninspired performance against Real Madrid on Wednesday, losing the match 1-0 and falling out of the UEFA Champions League.

[ RECAP: Real Madrid 1-0 Man City ]

The match was decided by just one goal, but the scoreline was flattering to City as they failed to create any kind of real chances at the Bernabeu. Over the two legs, City managed just two shots on target.

While City were wildly disappointing in the second leg, manager Manuel Pellegrini did not think the match was that one-sided, saying both teams struggled on the attack.

I am disappointed because I think that was a very close game with two teams who did not create many chances. The two teams were working with no-one making a difference.

It is not the best thing changing a defender very early but I don’t think we had any problems in defence, we had problems creating, same as Real Madrid. They did not create many chances.

Real Madrid was not in top form, but they still could have scored three or four goals on Wednesday. Joe Hart had to come up with some big saves to keep things close, as the England goalkeeper was by far City’s most valuable player throughout the tie.

[ MORE: Liverpool preparing for Europa League match vs. Villarreal ]

The absence of David Silva through injury certainly hurt City’s attack, but there was very little service moving forward from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Yaya Toure. The poor play in the midfield left Sergio Aguero stranded alone up top, nearly invisible in the second leg.

Without service, Aguero was forced to track back to try and find the ball himself, leaving City no options to hit on the counter. For a tie between two of the most expensive teams in the world, neither side was truly impressive, but City surely disappointing.