After becoming the first side to progress through qualifying to book their spot at the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals, Japan have endured an up-and-down 12 months. Qualification was sealed at home in June 2013, but then followed the chastening FIFA Confederations Cup 2013 campaign, where the Samurai Blue entered as dark horses but left with their tail between their legs after three defeats.

Criticized for his failure to freshen up the squad in recent years, coach Alberto Zaccheroni blooded several young players in the EAFF East Asian Cup 2013 last July, and of those, forwards Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Osako, midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi and defender Masato Morishige are now established in the national set-up. Japan finished the year with two excellent performances against the Netherlands and Belgium. “In the past three and a half years, we’ve grown so much [against strong teams],” said Zaccheroni. He added: “This is our turn to show everybody how strong we are.”

Despite being the lowest-ranked nation in Group C, expectations are high that Japan will progress to the Round 16, with playmakers Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and prolific Shinji Okazaki the key men. With marauding full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida providing ammunition for those three, Japan’s 4-2-3-1 formation is likely to produce some of the most fluent, eye-catching football in the tournament.

COACH>>

ALBERTO ZACCHERONI

The vastly experienced Zaccheroni has managed some of the biggest clubs in his native Italy, with the 1998/99 Scudetto win in charge of AC Milan the highlight. He was appointed Japan coach after the 2010 FIFA World Cu, guiding the Samurai Blue to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup title and qualification for Brazil 2014

Fixtures Group C

Cote d’Ivoire
Recife 16 June 2014

Greece
Natal 20 June 2014

Colombia
Cuiaba 25 June 2014

*Dates are AEST

Tournament history
Previous tournaments: 4

2010 FIFA World Cup performance
Round of 16

Best performance
Round of 16, 2002, 2010

How they qualified
Winners, Asian Group B