As we countdown to Russia 2018, we take a look at all 32 teams and suggest a reason to back them. With 9 days to the big kick-off, it is the turn of Japan.
Steady and stable without ever threatening to do anything crazy like South Korea and somehow make their way to the World Cup semi-finals, Japan are the Nathan Carter of world football. They always seem to turn up and are generally pleasant, but never really get the pulses racing.
Russia 2018 will be Japan’s sixth consecutive World Cup outing and while they’ve twice made it out of the group phase, a place in the quarter-finals has proved to be elusive. Even in 2002 when they co-hosted the tournament, they were beaten by Turkey in the last 16.
Qualification for the Russia tournament was fairly straight-forward and they could even afford a shock opening day defeat against the UAE before eventually booking their place in the World Cup with a game to spare as they topped the AFC qualifying Group B.
Manager Vahid Halilhodzic had installed a strict system of discipline within the Japanese squad and it yielded results, as did his change of approach. Out went the skilful technical players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki as Halilhodzic went for a more direct and aggressive style of football, leading to plenty of criticism.
Rumblings of unrest within the squad continued despite their World Cup qualification and a string of six international friendlies without a win gave the JFA the excuse they needed to pull the plug and sack Halilhodzic with two months to go until the World Cup.
JFA technical director Akira Nishino has come in to replace Halilhodzic, but defeat to Ghana in his first game in charge did little to instil any confidence, even if his team selection and tactical approach was more in line with the short-passing, possession based game you’d associate with Japan.
The likes of Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki are now back in favour under Nishino and with all three around the age of 30, they should be at the peak of their powers going into this tournament, with Kagawa in particular crucial to Japan’s hopes.
The former Manchester United midfield still managed to impress for a struggling Borusia Dortmund team this season, despite several injury issues and much will fall on his shoulders in terms of creativity in Nishino’s team.
Southampton defender Maya Yoshida will also play a important role for the Blue Samurai, while there are a couple of decent young attacking players who look set to impress.
21-year-old midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi has caught the eye in the qualifying and with his performances for Spanish outfit Cultural Leonesa where he’s on loan from Leeds United of all clubs, while Takuma Asano has shone for Stuttgart while on loan for Arsenal.
Both Ideguchi and Asano were particularly impressive in Japan’s 2-0 win over Australia in qualifying and their omission from the squad for pre-World Cup friendlies is believed to be another reason for the sacking of Halilhodzic.
Group H isn’t the worst draw that Japan could have been handed and while Colombia will be favourites to top the group, Japan won’t fear their other opponents Poland or Senegal, and will believe that they can move on to the final 16.
That will most likely be the sum of their ambitions in Russia, and that's fine. Not every side can turn up and thrill the crowds en route to the last four and let's not forget that qualifying for six consecutive World Cups is no mean feat - Ireland certainly wouldn't turn it down.
And hey, some people really do like that Wagon Wheel song.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo (both Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda (both Kashima Antlers).
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale).
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz).