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Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Sports

World Cup 2014: Hot times ahead for Samurai Blue

The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN | Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Keisuke Honda ended a scoring drought in Japan’s final World Cup warmup match against Zambia, and hopes are high he can continue to find the net in Brazil.

The Samurai Blue's fifth venture into World Cup action starts Saturday, two days after host Brazil and Croatia kick off the event.

Japan's results in its previous appearances are divided-the team made it to the last 16 in 2002 and 2010, but struggled in the group stages in 1998 and 2006 and did not advance.

Japan's biggest issue is whether or not it can progress to the knockout stage for the second consecutive tournament. The key to surviving group play lies not only in matching up to the strength of the opponents, but mitigating circumstances that include heat and travel distance.

Japan will face Cote d'Ivoire, Greece and Colombia in the group stage. None of those teams will be easy to handle for Japan, ranked 46th in the FIFA world rankings as of June 5. Colombia is No. 8, Greece is ranked 12th and Cote d'Ivoire No. 23.

Despite differences in playing style, the teams in Japan's group have a common thread: physical toughness.

Japan's first match against Cote d'Ivoire will be a yardstick for the Samurai Blue, who will use it to gauge their chances of reaching the knockout stage.

The African team features a large number of renown players such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo, Didier Zokora and Gervinho, who are highly skilled and athletic.

"To my regret, we've been placed in a group with a team that I think is the best in Africa," Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni said after the draw was announced in December.

The match will take place in the northern city of Recife. The hot and humid climate of the city could work as an advantage for the African team, which is used to playing in such conditions.

However, the African team's weakness comes in its lack of cohesion.

Good track record against Africans

The Samurai Blue will unlikely be daunted in facing Cote d'Ivoire, as they have a decent history in matchups against African teams-Japan edged Cameroon in its first meeting in the 2010 tournament, and beat Ghana in a friendly in September.

Cote d'Ivoire's key player is Yaya Toure, a Manchester City midfielder who has been named the African Player of the Year for three straight years from 2012 to 2014. He excels on the defensive side, with his tackles and interceptions, while also being a decisive factor on offence because of his passing, dribbling and shooting.

Five days later, Japan faces Greece in Natal, also a northern city. Japan is expected to dominate possession, but Greece is fully aware of the Samurai Blue's style of play.

The European team has solid defence and is confident in its ability to counterattack and use set plays, so Japan cannot let its guard down no matter how much the game starts to go in its favour.

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