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For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews a...

World Cup 2018 team preview: Japan is a mystery

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

Outlook
Odds to win Group H: 11.8%
Odds to advance: 40%
Odds to win World Cup: 1%
Elo rank: 44
Yahoo Sports power rank: 26

Our writers say: Japan underwhelmed in 2014, and has struggled in the buildup to Russia. It looks like a team caught in between generations at the worst possible time. And there’s uncertainty at the top. Group H is there for the taking, but the Blue Samurai are the least likely of four participants to take it. — HB

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Basics
World Cup appearance: 6th
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
2014 finish: Group stage (0-1-2)
Qualifying: Topped Asia’s Group B ahead of Saudi Arabia, Australia
Schedule: Colombia (Tuesday, June 19, 11 a.m., Fox), Senegal (Sunday, June 24, 11 a.m., Fox), Poland (Thursday, June 28, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)

Squad
Manager: Akira Nishino
Captain: Makoto Hasebe (M)
Top players: Shinji Kagawa (M), Keisuke Honda (M), Maya Yoshida (D)
Full 23-man (or preliminary) squad

Breakdown
Why they’ll win games: They still have two of the most technically gifted players in Japanese history, Kagawa and Honda. And they’re probably the most talented Asian team at the tournament.

Why they’ll lose games: They’ve been underwhelming for a while now. So underwhelming that after a 1-1 draw with Mali and a 2-1 loss to Ukraine in March, the federation sacked manager Vahid Halilhodzic. Nishino has taken over with all of two-plus months – and zero friendlies until late May – to prepare, and with an aging squad bereft of identity.

How they’ll play: We won’t waste you’re time the many possibilities. They’ve never played a game under Nishino. So there’s no way to tell.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Eiji Kawashima; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi; Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Genki Haraguchi; Yuya Osako.

The defensive selections seem pretty intuitive. Hasebe has over 100 caps and remains the skipper, so he’ll likely have a place in the 11. Kagawa and Honda will surely start. But other than that, it’s up in the air.

Rooting Guide
What makes them unique: They’re one of seven World Cup participants to make a managerial change over the past 12 months, and one of four to make one after qualifying. But they were the last of the four to make theirs, and are the only team who, at time of writing, has not played a game under the new boss. Saudi Arabia even had time to make two firings and hirings before Japan could make one.

Why to root for them: Because you’ve been a Keisuke Honda stan ever since 2010.

Why to root against them: You’ll get your hopes up because the group is winnable, then quickly realize that Japan is the one team not capable of winning it.

If you’re going to watch one game … Watch the opener against Colombia. There’s a non-zero chance the Japanese suddenly turn into world beaters under Nishino.