On paper Japan should be setting their sights on at least the second round in Germany: Asian Champion at the last two tournaments; the first nation to qualify for the finals; a half-dozen players plying their trade in Europe; the so-called 'golden quartet' in midfield; a big-name coach in Brazilian Zico and the experience of reaching the Round of 16 on home soil four years ago.
But in the case of Japan 06 looks can be deceiving.
Philippe Troussier, the national coach at the last world cup, has publicly declared that this Japan squad is 'his side' and it's hard to argue with that – the majority of the 23 man squad travelling to Germany were introduced by the wily Frenchman and if you look at the probable starting lineup only defenders Makoto Tanaka and Akira Kaji earned their first caps under Zico.
The Brazilian’s reign has become a by-word for loyalty and in some cases blind faith.
Key playmaker Shinji Ono
Almost since he assumed the mantle of head coach in August 2002 Zico has crafted a squad that is familiar, works well and understands each other and has been reluctant to tinker with his favoured formation.
One advantage has been the relative stability of the defensive framework built around regular skipper Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Yuji Nakazawa – regarded by many as one of the best defenders in Asia.
Along with goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi as well as Tanaka and Kaji, Miyamoto and Nakazawa presided over a Japanese side that only conceded five goals in reaching the finals.
Whilst the defence looks strong, it’s in midfield that Japan possesses its greatest threat.
Hidetoshi Nakata may be the main 'name' but his form over the past three seasons in Italy and England has been discouraging and whilst the ball distribution and feel for the flow of a match are still there Hide’s been overtaken in the playmaking stakes by Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono.
Japanese fans never let Celtic
star Nakamura walk alone
Nakamura, surprisingly omitted by Troussier for the finals four years ago, has blossomed in Scotland and offers real danger from set pieces, and the return from injury of Ono, considered one of the most complete midfielders ever produced in Japan, has been timely.
But the main problem for Japan is up-front and it’s here that Zico's dedication to the same group of players may backfire.
Regular starters Naohiro Takahara and Atsushi Yanagisawa are respectively woefully out of form and struggling with injury whilst the back-up options in Keiji Tamada, Masashi Oguro and Seiichiro Maki all lack top-flight experience and none of the quintet can be regarded as out and out strikers.
Which makes some of the omissions from the final 23 all the more baffling – Le Mans' Daisuke Matsui topped the French League in assists this season and Sota Hirayama at Heracles in the Dutch Eredivisie scored more goals in Europe (10) than any Japanese player of the past thirty years.
Yet, still Zico refused to alter his preferred group and with recent results against Bulgaria (a 1-0 loss) and Scotland (0-0) less than encouraging one must wonder where Japan will find the goals needed to steer them out of Group F.
The bottom line is Japan should be hard to breakdown, will play some attractive football in moving the ball around midfield but the lack of goals will be the stumbling block that sees the Boys in Blue on an early flight back to Tokyo.