TOKYO (AP) Keisuke Honda senses a growing confidence within the Japan team, and expects it will translate into results at the World Cup.
Japan surprised critics in 2010 by advancing past the group stage with wins over Cameroon and Denmark before losing on penalties to Paraguay in the knockout stage.
Veteran coach Alberto Zaccheroni was hired to take Japan to the next level and, after what many supporters perceive as a favorable draw in a group with Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia, expectations for the team progressing further than they did four years ago are high.
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Honda has been Japan’s best player since the last World Cup and scored an injury-time penalty as his team became the first to qualify for Brazil with a 1-1 draw against Australia last June.
Never one to lack confidence, the 27-year-old playmaker said Japan has what it takes to contend with the world’s best teams.
”We are definitely challengers,” Honda said. ”Other teams underestimate us and take us lightly but we won’t be intimidated.”
Honda got off to a slow start with AC Milan after his high-profile transfer from Russian champion CSKA Moscow in January, but he is starting to adjust to life in Italy.
Zaccheroni, who won the Serie A title with Milan in 1998-99, said the switch would help Honda improve as a player.
”He will have plenty of time to adapt,” the Italian said. ”I know Honda very well and I think this is a good move for him. He will be very motivated.”
Shinji Kagawa has had limited playing time for David Moyes during Manchester United’s troubled season but has always played an important role with the national side. He scored twice in a 4-2 win over New Zealand in a friendly in March, dispelling fears that his lack of playing time at Old Trafford would hamper his World Cup preparations.
Kagawa will be making his World Cup debut in Brazil and knows the tournament will present unique challenges.
”You can face a lot of different conditions at the World Cup,” Kagawa said of the travel, the time frame and the pressure. ”Regardless of which players are available you have to play well as a team.”
One of Japan’s Europe-based players who has been in form all season is forward Shinji Okazaki, who has scored consistently for Mainz in the Bundesliga.
On the down side, Japan is dealing with several long-term injury issues. Right back Atsuto Uchida, who plays for Schalke, injured his thigh on Feb. 9 and has said he may not be available for the World Cup.
Captain Makoto Hasebe has had two operations on his right knee and will be another question mark for Zaccheroni.
In the buildup to their fifth straight World Cup appearance, the Japanese squad has shown flashes of being able to compete against the world’s top teams.
They beat a full-strength Argentina just two months into Zaccheroni’s tenure, challenged Italy despite a 4-3 loss at the 2013 Confederations Cup, and produced a good draw against the Netherlands and a convincing win over Belgium to finish 2013 on a high note.
While Japan has plenty of talent in midfield and up front, the team’s defense has come under considerable pressure. With the less-than-stellar play of Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Uchida and Yasayuki Konno, there has been speculation of recalls for veterans like Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, leaving Zaccheroni plenty to consider before finalizing his 23-man squad.