Ambitious Japan remain too blunt upfront to cause any shocks

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Somewhat admirably, Japan manager Takeshi Okada has set his sights on a semi-final spot for his side, who are making their fourth consecutive appearance at the World Cup Finals.

It’s especially bold coming from a man whose last stint in charge of his country came at World Cup ’98, when Japan left France embarrassed after finishing rock bottom of their group, losing all three games, including a humiliating 2-1 loss to Jamaica.

Yet after a relatively comfortable qualifying campaign, when they finished second to Australia, Okada believes his squad have what it takes to shock progress from Group E.

But his confidence seems somewhat misplaced. They may have done enough to get through from the final round of Asian qualifying, but they did finish a good five points behind the Aussies, won only four of their eight games and scored just 11 goals, despite playing the likes of Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan.

Okada does boast a squad with a healthy mix of youth and experience, however. They have a total of eight players with over fifty caps, and a handful of young stars who look set to make a big impact on world football.

Keisuka Honda had a strong season at CSKA Moscow, and the 23-year-old will be tussling with former Celtic hero Shunsuke Nakamura over who gets to take the free-kicks, having established himself as a set piece specialist in the same mould as his mentor.

Then there’s 24-year-old Shinji Okazaki, the Shimizu S-Pulse striker who has scored 16 times for his country in just 25 appearances. He’ll be restricted to a super sub role – puzzlingly behind goal-shy forwards Keiji Tamada and Yoshito Okubo in the pecking order – but Okada could do worse than give him a starring birth.

Scoring goals looks like Japan’s real problem – in their last three games against fellow World Cup opposition (Serbia, South Korea and South Africa) they’ve scored just once and conceded six.

So dead ball men Nakamura and Honda remain their best chance of finding the net, but free-kicks apart they lack the ruthlessness in front of goal to cause established group rivals Holland, Denmark and Cameroon any real concern. Unless Okada takes a few risks with some of his promising youngsters, a second pointless World Cup will be added to his CV.

How do you see the Japanese coping in Group E? They are 9/1 to shock everyone and finish top. See the full Group E winner market here.

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Craig Kemp

Craig has written for Ladbrokes since the 2010 World Cup, having previously gained a Media & Sports Journalism degree and contributed to publications including the Racing Post. His main areas of interest are horse racing and UFC, but he is also an avid X Factor gambler and likes nothing more than indulging in a spot of Hip Hop Karaoke.