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Japan struggle to find form under new coach

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Tokyo, June 6: The Japanese football team has set its sights on moving forward from the group stage at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That might be a tough task due to a run of bad form and the appointment of a new head coach.

This is Japan’s sixth consecutive appearance at the World Cup but the team has only once made it to the round of 16, reports Xinhua news agency.

The Samurai Blue, though a predominant powerhouses in Asia with exquisite ball control and passing, still lags behind strong European and Latin American teams. In the 2014 tournament in Brazil, the Japanese team first lost to Cote d’Ivoire 1-2, drew with a 10-man Greece and then lost to Colombia 1-4.

This year Japan has been drawn in Group H alongside Senegal, Poland and Colombia. A strong group, but not insurmountable.

What might prevent Japan from advancing out of the group stage is a recent run of bad form and a hasty change of head coach close to the start of the competition.

The Japan Football Association (JFA) abruptly fired former head coach Vahid Halilhodzic in early April, citing a lack of trust and communication between Halilhodzic and his players.

Local media said the decision might have been made due to Halilhodzic underutilising national superstars, including Keisuke Honda who used to play for Italian club AC Milan.

With less than two months to prepare for the World Cup, new head coach Akira Nishino has relied heavily on older players. In Japan’s 23-man World Cup squad, almost half are veterans from the previous tournament in 2014 and the average age of the team is 28, the highest ever for a Japanese World Cup squad. The choice has caused some controversy, as some veteran players, though possessing plenty of experience, have not been in their best form in recent years.

Nishino’s decision to play three defenders at the back also stirred doubts especially after a warm-up game in May which saw the Samurai Blue lose to Ghana 0-2. “With three at the back, it’s necessary for (midfield) players to get back and slide into position in defence. There were times where we were able to react and others where our combinations didn’t quite match up,” Nishino later admitted.

He added that he would consider other formations depending on which are the opponents. In the recent training sessions in Austria, besides the new 3-4-2-1 formation, the Japanese team also tried 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations, which showed that the new coach still needs time to decide on his tactics and to help his team adjust to the best. Japan will start their World Cup against Colombia on June 19 and will face Senegal five days later before finishing off their group campaign against Poland on June 28.

According to FIFA, Japan are ranked 60th in the world, well below Senegal (28), Colombia (16) and Poland (10).

As local media reported, only 150 fans saw the Samurai Blue off at the airport when they left for Austria last week, a drastic decline from the 700 people four years ago, showing the fans’ lack of confidence in the team. Lowered expectations might play into the hands of the Japanese team, giving them a chance of surprising all the skeptics. However if they are to surprise their fans, a lot of hard work will have to take place between now and their opening match. (IANS)