The 2022 FIFA World Cup is finally here and Japan are ready to step onto football's biggest stage when they kick off their tournament against Germany on Wednesday.
This Samurai Blue side reached Qatar after a slow start in qualifying, going undefeated over their final seven matches to secure a seventh consecutive World Cup berth.
After a successful series of friendlies building up to Qatar, manager Hajime Moriyasu's men will have confidence going into Wednesday's opener despite playing against a nation that is heavily favored and won the World Cup eight years ago.
Led by the likes of 2010 World Cup Golden Boot winner Thomas Müller, steadying force Joshua Kimmich, and rising star Jamal Musiala, Germany will pose a stiff challenge that the Samurai Blue will need to be meet faultlessly if they want to start life in Group E on the right foot.
That flawless performance will hinge first and foremost upon the defense, which will be anchored by Maya Yoshida and could also include J.League veterans Hiroki Sakai of Urawa Reds and Yuto Nagatomo of F.C.Tokyo. Alongside Avispa Fukuoka product Takehiro Tomiyasu, who has impressed mightily for Arsenal over the past year, Japan could well be a difficult side to break down in this tournament if the experienced defensive pieces interlock as some pundits predict.
On the other side of the pitch, Japan's deep crop of attacking talent is less experienced but also plenty exciting. The rapid ascent of Kaoru Mitoma with Brighton & Hove Albion in the English Premier League is one such example, with the former Kawasaki Frontale man in top form but not necessarily guaranteed a place in Moriyasu's team.
One player very likely to factor into the attack is Junya Ito. The dynamic 29-year-old player developed his game at Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol and was one of the stars of this AFC qualifying cycle, scoring in four consecutive matches during Japan's home stretch. In a game where Japan will be expected to counter, the Samurai Blue will look for a clinical edge, which could come from the Reims man.
However the Samurai Blue line up, inspiration for an upset is plenty recent, as Japan four years ago prevailed over favorites Colombia, 2-1, in their opener — a victory that propelled them to the Round of 16, where they nearly defeated eventual third-place finishers Belgium.
Japan should also have fond recent memories of the stadium where the match will take place; the 45,000-seat Khalifa International Stadium was also the site of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup Final. On that night, Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Tadanari Lee scored 19 minutes into extra time for the lone goal that delivered Japan the crown over Australia. Three players who played in that final — Yoshida, Nagatomo, and reserve goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima — are in this squad as well.
That trio will know the feeling of glory with the national team and history, be it four or 11 years ago, says Japan can upend Germany for another dose of it. They are the clear underdogs, but 90 minutes of their best football could produce a night that will live long in Samurai Blue lore.