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World Cup Fantasy Preview: Japan

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A team on the rise after a disappointing showing at the Confederations Cup last year, Japan will be an exciting prospect to watch as they challenge Belgium, Greece and Ivory Coast in the group stages. Can they advance from Group C?

Will Japan believe enough to achieve their World Cup dream?
Will Japan believe enough to achieve their World Cup dream?
Chris McGrath

After falling to defeat in each of their three matches at the Confederations Cup tournament in 2013, Japan appeared to be a side in disarray, but head coach Alberto Zaccheroni has turned their fortunes around through their World Cup qualifying campaign. Having beaten Belgium in a friendly in November will give the Japanese a boost in confidence heading into group play. Here's the final 23-man squad heading to Brazil:

Goalkeepers

Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)

Defenders

Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96), Gotoku Sakai (VfB Stuttgart)

Midfielders

Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Makoto Hasebe (FC Nuremberg), Hiroshi Kiyotake (FC Nuremberg), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F Marinos)

Forwards

Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Yuya Osako (TSV Munich 1860), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale)

Fantasy Players To Watch

Yuto Nagatomo - The Inter Milan fullback is a guaranteed starter for Japan and will be raiding up and down the flank for his side. Not likely to contribute with goals, but could be a source for assists and successful crosses into the penalty area. Zaccheroni appears to have addressed some of the defensive issues that plagued Japan last summer, but clean sheets may be hard to come by in such an attacking group, with the exception of the match against Greece.

Yasuhito Endo - Endo is the oldest member of the squad at 34, but he's still got plenty left in the tank. The creative midfielder has impeccable vision and will operate in the center of the pitch for Japan. He'll provide link-up play between the defense and attack and will have ample opportunities on the ball to play the final pass or even take a shot at goal. Set piece delivery is also one of Endo's strong suits.

Shinji Kagawa - Despite a campaign on the fringes of the Manchester United squad, we are all aware of Kagawa's class and abilities. His approach to the game makes it look much more effortless than it actually is, which may play in his favor as opponents lose track of him during moments when he appears to be relaxing. With his excellent vision and ball control, Kagawa will be one of the most important pieces of Japan's attack.

Keisuke Honda - Another player who struggled to break into the first team for his club this season, Honda is easily Japan's best attacking player. While he saw limited action for AC Milan in his debut season for the Serie A club, he is a nailed-on starter at attacking mid for Japan. Leading the team in goals in qualifying, he'll be expected to continue that form in the World Cup.

Shinji Okazaki - Operating as a winger or wide forward, Okazaki is a dangerous attacker and regular goalscorer for his national side. With 38 goals in 73 appearances, including 3 in qualifying, he'll be relied on to contribute to Japan's chances of advancing to the Round of 16. With uncertainty surrounding the lone striker role, Okazaki is the best forward option if you're looking for a bench player in the group stages.