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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.

West Ham 0-3 Southampton: Austin, Tadic pile on West Ham woes

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Charlie Austin remained hot, scoring his fifth goal in his last four matches to open the scoring, and it only got worse for the home fans at the Olympic Stadium as West Ham slumped to yet another defeat, this time to surging Southampton 3-0 behind goals from Austin, Dusan Tadic, and James Ward-Prowse.

West Ham pressed forward in the early going, seeing a number of touches inside the Southampton box, but the Saints held strong. As the first half progressed, the teams dribbled back and forth through the midfield, with the occasional moment of excessive physicality, keeping referee Jon Moss busy.

Oriol Romeu was cautioned in the ninth minute for a very heavy challenge on Manuel Lanzini near the mid-line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Southampton began to build themselves into possession past the half-hour mark, and with five minutes to go until the break, West Ham’s leaky defense opened the door again. Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left cut back to Charlie Austin at the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot past Adrian to put Southampton in front.

Following halftime, the visitors pushed for a second, nearly grabbing it in the 52nd minute when Dusan Tadic’s effort from close range was stopped expertly by a wonderful Adrian save down to his left. That sprung West Ham to life, and the Olympic Stadium responded with a ringing endorsement from the home fans.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Simone Zaza was booked for diving on the hour mark after flopping over a nothing challenge in the box from Romeu. Down the other end, Southampton struck again. With the Hammers dispossessed in their own half, a brilliant flick from Austin sprung Tadic free on goal, and he rounded Adrian and tapped home Southampton’s second.

Down 2-0, Slaven Bilic threw on young Ashley Fletcher and Sofiane Feghouli, both of whom had an impact. The Hammers screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute as Feghouli looked to clean up bright play from Payet, but his shot hit the arm of Bertrand, although from close range it would have been hard for Bertrand to react properly to avoid the contact, and Jon Moss did not award a spot kick.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The home side continued to flood forward past the 75th minute, with Southampton content to sit deep and look to counter. Adrian was needed to keep things from getting worse, as he produced quality saves to keep out both James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the 86th minute. Ward-Prowse would tack on a third in added time, as a deflection off Angelo Ogbonna opened up the young Englishman to poke home easily.

The three points sent Southampton shooting up the Premier League table, into the top half with nine points after their second straight win. Meanwhile, West Ham remains winless, shut out for the first time this season and owners of the leakiest defense in the league with 16 goals conceded.

Report: Kevin de Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: The Manchester City team check that Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City is okay after being fouled during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Kevin De Bruyne had been in the form of his life under new manager Pep Guardiola, but that will temporarily come to a screeching halt.

The 25-year-old has suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him out around four weeks, according to a report by City Watch, meaning he will miss significant time. He was brought off in the 81st minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday.

That one month span includes an international break, leaving new Belgium manager Roberto Martinez without one of his most in-form attackers. Through six Premier League matches, De Bruyne has two goals and five assists, leading Manchester City to a perfect start to the year as they sit atop the table.

[MORE: Antonio Conte furious with Chelsea’s defensive woes ]

Should four weeks be his time off the pitch, he would miss not only Belgium’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, but he would also miss Premier League matchups against Tottenham and Southampton, plus vital Champions League trips to Celtic and Barcelona.

De Bruyne’s absence will be a huge loss to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. According to Squawka Statistics, the Belgian playmaker has created 20 chances through six Premier League matches and has completed eight of 10 attempted take-ons. Guardiola said a week ago that De Bruyne was in the class of player just below Lionel Messi. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

One man central to City’s ability to keep pace without De Bruyne will be new purchase Ilkay Gundoguan. The former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder has started the last two matches after returning from an injury of his own, but has yet to play a full 90 minutes.

UPDATE: Belgian reporter Kristof Terreur of HLN has confirmed the report.

Watch Live: West Ham vs. Southampton (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Manager of West Ham United, Slaven Bilic look on during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The Hammers are in a bad spot. Five matches into the season, they have just three points – one third their haul at this point last season. They host Southampton at the Olympic Stadium at 11am E.T. live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Southampton isn’t in much better shape. They own just five points thus far and sit in 14th, and manager Claude Puel has slotted  in-form striker Charlie Austin into the starting lineup looking to build on a pair of wins over the last week.

WATCH LIVE: West Ham vs. Southampton live online at NBCSports.com

Austin scored the only goal in Saints’ 1-0 win over Swansea last weekend, their first of the league season, and then scored again in the 2-0 win over Swansea in the EFL Cup midweek. That gives Austin four goals in his last three games following a Europa League brace two weeks ago.

For West Ham, Slaven Bilic has a problem at left-back yet again after Arthur Makuasu, Aaron Cresswell‘s replacement, went down with a knee injury. Newly-arrived Alvaro Arbeloa will move from his usual right side to deputize. Defensive issues have plagued the Hammers thus far, having conceded 11 goals in their last three league games.

LINEUPS

West Ham: Adrian; Nordtveit, Reid, Ogbonna, Arbeloa; Noble; Antonio, Kouyate, Lanzini, Payet; Zaza.
Subs: Randolph, Byram, Oxford, Obiang, Fernandes, Feghouli, Fletcher.

Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Højbjerg; Davis, Tadić, Redmond; Austin.
Subs: McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Long, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Hesketh.

Joe Hart, Torino down Roma 3-1 in early Serie A game

BERGAMO, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Goalkeeper of FC Torino Joe Hart gestures during the Serie a match between Atalanta BC and FC Torino at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on September 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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In today’s early Serie A game, Joe Hart and Torino held down Roma to win 3-1 at Stadio Olimpico to move into the top half of the table.

Roma dominated the stat sheets, holding 69% possession and out-passing Torino 466-174, but were wasteful in front of net, only able to put just five of their 21 their shots on target.

Andrea Belotti scored just eight minutes in to put Torino ahead, and Iago Falque bagged a brace with goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to seal it. For all its possession and movement in the attacking half, Roma could only manage a goal on a penalty, scored by Francesco Totti, his 250th career goal, all coming for one club.

Manchester City loanee Joe Hart commanded a solid performance by Torino’s back line, with the home side managing a whopping 22 tackles and 33 clearances. Roma actually out-performed Torino on the expected goals front, proving Hart’s influence.

The win, the club’s first since late August, pushes Torino up to eight in the Serie A table on eight points. They have conceded just a single goal – the Totti penalty – in their last three matches. It’s a far cry from the 2-1 loss to Atalanta in Hart’s debut, in which a mistake by the England international allowed Atalanta to score the winning goal.

On the other side, Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake to gift Torino their early goal. The result for Roma is a big blow to their hopes at challenging for the title, dropping them five points back of leaders Juventus and four behind Napoli.