By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s relatively routine build-up to the World Cup was shaken dramatically by the surprise decision to fire head coach Vahid Halilhodzic two months before the finals in Russia.
After leading Japan to their sixth consecutive World Cup, the Bosnian was dismissed and replaced with former Japan Football Association (JFA) technical director Akira Nishino.
The pressure is now on Nishino, seen very much as the company man within the JFA, to rebuild the fractious relationship between the players and coaching staff and justify the decision taken by his superiors to change things so close to the finals.
Part of the reason behind Halilhodzic’s removal was a run of poor performances in the friendlies since the team qualified for Russia in August.
The JFA and Nishino have both spoken of the communication gap between the Bosnian and many of his players being the reason for this poor form and the new head coach’s priority will be getting senior players back on side.
Nishino has just three friendly matches to prepare his side for arguably the World Cup’s most even group. They host Ghana on May 30, visit Switzerland on June 8 and play Paraguay in Austria four days later.
Although Japan will be pleased to have avoided the more dangerous top seeds, their Group H rivals Poland, Senegal and Colombia all possess the quality to hurt the Blue Samurai.
The 63-year-old Nishino can rely on a wealth of experience in a defence that conceded only seven goals in their 10 qualifying matches.
Hiroki Sakai of Marseille, Gotoku Sakai of Hamburg, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and international cap centurion Yuto Nagamoto of Galatasaray all bring top-flight European experience to a backline that will be hard to break down.
However, as Japan will face some of the world’s best attacking players in their group –- namely Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Colombia’s James Rodriguez –- it seems inevitable that the Blue Samurai will need to score goals of their own to progress to the second round for the third time in their history.
The two Shinjis –- Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Okazaki of Leicester City –- will prove pivotal if Nishino’s vision of attacking football is to be realised.
Okazaki, who is Japan’s third highest goalscorer in history, has scored only seven goals this season for Leicester as he has struggled to hold down a starting role.
However, under Nishino the onus will likely be on him, supported by Kagawa and stalwart Keisuke Honda, to unlock opposing defences.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)