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.

Group C wide open as Denmark, Australia settle for draw

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Denmark and Australia settled for a 1-1 draw on Thursday, as this exciting Group C affair had nothing to separate the two nations at the end of 90 minutes.

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As it stands, the Danes lead the group with four points, while Australia earned its first point of the World Cup.

France will meet Peru later on Thursday, with Les Bleus having won its first match and Peru having suffered defeat to Denmark.

The Danes broke through after seven minutes when Nicolai Jørgensen picked out a perfect back-heel pass to Christian Eriksen at the top of the box, before the Tottenham Hotspur attacker volleyed home for a 1-0 lead.

Jørgensen nearly doubled the Denmark advantage in the 24th minute when the 27-year-old had an open header from close range that skewed just wide of the target.

Australia worked its way into the match following the opener, and were awarded a penalty kick in the 37th minute after VAR Mark Geiger altered an initial decision for a handball inside the box.

Mile Jedinak converted the spot kick to level the match at 1-1, giving the Socceroos life.

A dangerous free kick four minutes later almost gave Denmark the lead once again, however, Eriksen couldn’t get a crucial touch on the ball to knock it over the goal line before Ryan collected.

The second half continued with lightning pace from both sides, and Aaron Mooy‘s 71st minute blast came inches away from giving Australia an improbable lead.

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The two nations will conclude Group C play on June 26, as Denmark faces France and Australia takes on CONMEBOL side Peru.

Video: VAR awards Australia penalty, before Jedinak converts

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The Socceroos battled admirably in the latter stages of the first half, and Australia was rewarded for their efforts.

Australia has leveled the match at 1-1 after a Mile Jedinak penalty kick cancelled out Christian Eriksen’s stunning opener in the seventh minute.

After an initial decision to play on by the head referee, VAR Mark Geiger opted to award a penalty kick to the Aussies after Yussuf Poulsen was caught with his hand away from his body on a Mathew Leckie header.

Poulsen was also shown a yellow card for the infraction, which rules him out for Denmark’s group-stage finale against France.

Video: Eriksen volley has Denmark ahead inside 10 minutes

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Denmark is well on its way to another three points on Thursday, and this time it’s Christian Eriksen who has finally broken through at the World Cup.

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Eriksen put the Danes in front in the seventh minute after a tremendous volley that gave Australia goalkeeper Maty Ryan no chance at keeping it out.

After a sloppy turnover in their own half, Australia could only watch as the ball fell to Nicolai Jørgensen, who cleverly back-heeled to Eriksen at the top of the box.

The Danes pulled off a 1-0 victory in their first Group C match against Peru, while Australia fell 2-1 to France.

Croatia coach says “we have nothing to lose” against Argentina

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Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic chose his words wisely when discussing their final Group D opponent, Argentina, but his side won’t be backing down when they take on Lionel Messi and Co.

[ MORE: Spain gets win after Iran equalizer called off by replay ]

With three points already in the bag for the European nation, Croatia currently sits atop their group, however, Dalic recognizes the task that lies in front of him and his team on Thursday.

“I didn’t say that Argentina was the easiest opponent,” Dalic said. “I said that this was the easiest game for us. We have nothing to lose. We are playing against one of the best.”

Croatia does have the benefit of having won its first match in group play, which has given the side a decided enthusiasm heading into the meeting.

For Ivan Rakitic — who plays at Barcelona with Messi — he believes there isn’t much he or anyone on his team can say or do to further prepare themselves for the Albiceleste.

“What can I tell them that they don’t know?” Rakitic said. “The world knows. Messi is one of the best players in the world. He will have his moments, clearly. It is up to us to stop him, to play the right way against him, and to enjoy the match and play our best.

“It’s a beautiful thing to play against one of the best teams in the world. We are especially motivated.”

In four all-time meetings, Argentina leads 2-1-1 against Croatia, including a 1-0 victory during the 1998 World Cup in France.

The two teams last met in 2014 following Argentina’s World Cup final defeat to Germany, with Messi and Co. earning a 2-1 victory over Croatia.