Team Focus: Japan's 'Magic Square' Can Guide Them to the Knockout Stages

Many feel Japan have an excellent chance of successfully navigating the group stages such is the ability of their attacking players. While the defensive solidity of Alberto Zaccheroni's side is questionable, offensively they have the personnel to hurt their Group C opponents...

On the face of it, Group C may not be deemed the most appealing to the neutrals. There's no Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Germany to attract supporters, though the group does contain four teams from four different continents. The combination of the conservative Greece, flamboyant Colombia, physically dominating Ivory Coast and technically gifted Japan should make for three rounds of entertaining fixtures, with no clear standout favourite to make the second round.

Many feel Japan have an excellent chance of successfully navigating the group stages such is the ability of their attacking players. While the defensive solidity of Alberto Zaccheroni's side is questionable, offensively they have the personnel to hurt their Group C opponents.

The Italian is expected to use his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation in Brazil, with Zaccheroni boasting 4 quality offensive-minded stars who can both create and score goalscoring chances. Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Hiroshi Kiyotake could be used to support Shinji Okazaki in attack as Japan aim to reach the last-16 of the World Cup.

Between them, the quartet netted 11 of the 16 goals Japan scored in the final round of AFC World Cup qualification as they lost just one of their last 8 games to reach Brazil. While they started off qualification poorly, Japan are beginning find their rhythm when it matters most and the attacking foursome could play a crucial role if they are to succeed in South America.

Okazaki in particular will be hoping to impress this summer having netted 3 goals in the final round of qualifying and 8 in total. The frontman is WhoScored's 'one to watch' of all Japan players at the World Cup and for good reason. The 28-year-old scored more goals (15) than any other Mainz player last season as Die Nullfünfer secured an impressive 7th placed finish in the Bundesliga.

Importantly, 15 goals represents his best return in Germany's top tier and one that was better than his previous two-and-a-half seasons for VfB Stuttgart combined (10 goals). His conversion rate (20.8%) was bettered by only 5 players in the Bundesliga of those to score at least 10 goals last season, so Okazaki has the finishing ability to bag the goals for the national team.

In fact, his prolificacy has seen him develop a WhoScored strength of 'finishing', while his performances meant Zaccheroni refrained from calling up Vitesse frontman Mike Havenaar. The 27-year-old may have performed well for the Dutch side last term, netting 10 and assisting a further 5, but the versatility of Okazaki is likely to have stood him in higher stead.

The Mainz attacker is capable of playing on the right or left of the frontline and has a tendency to drift to the flanks in search of the ball. This allows the supporting trio to excel. Kagawa, Honda and Kiyotake will be expected to provide a goalscoring threat from deep as they aim to surprise the opposition.

Honda scored the most goals (5) in the final round of AFC qualifying and the hopes of the nation could weigh on his shoulders. While the midfielder netted just 1 league goal for an underwhelming Milan side in 2014, a player of his calibre is certainly a threat, particularly when finding pockets of space between the lines. Should Okazaki pull to the wings and drag defenders out of position, the Milan attacker will have the opportunity to capitalise on the space offered to him.

The same applies for both Kagawa and Kiyotake, and the latter may have a big role to play for Japan if needed. Kiyotake has made a name for himself as one of the most creative players in the Bundesliga having registered the most assists (8) at Nurnberg last term. Josip Drmic leading the attack would have significantly helped Kiyotake showcase his creative talents at club level, though he should be able to reproduce such exploits with a player of Okazaki's striking prowess operating ahead of him.

Having developed a strength of 'key passes', Kiyotake will be expected to provide the goalscoring chances for his compatriots in Brazil, though it may be from wide where the 24-year-old poses the biggest threat. The Nurnberg ace has gained a strength of 'crossing' and with Okazaki's ability in the air - the striker won 3.4 aerial duels per game last season - the frontman can prove a menace to any defence if he is in and around the 18-yard box.

Kiyotake may also have the chance to utilise his shooting ability from distance having gained a WhoScored strength of 'long shots'. Against teams that are defending resolutely - Greece, for example - this weapon in his arsenal could be the difference between a negative and a positive result.

There is the possibility that Zaccheroni may use Okazaki on the right-flank, with Yoichiro Kakitani or Yuya Osako spearheading the attack, but the Italian may be wise to utilise the triumvirate of Kagawa, Honda and Kiyotake behind the striker due to their offensive ability

The Japan boss may not have the strongest defence to match the likes of Germany or Spain, but his attack in an unpredictable group may be enough to see them progress to the latter stages of the competition. For Zaccheroni, the adage "The best defence is a good offence" could not be more applicable in Brazil as his side gear up for their Group C opener with Ivory Coast.

How do you think Japan will fare at the World Cup? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below

All statistics courtesy of where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.

Before You Go