TOKYO (Reuters) - They might be in the weakest pot, but expectation will be high in Japan when they compete in their sixth successive World Cup next summer.
Japan finished top of a tough Group B in Asian qualifying, ahead of fellow qualifiers Saudi Arabia and Australia.
But Bosnian head coach Vahid Halilhodzic will be under pressure from a nation that expects Japan to progress from the group stage, despite being drawn in Pot Four, which contains the lowest-ranked finalists.
Since their first World Cup finals in 1998, Japan have alternated between group-stage and round-of-16 exits.
Having finished bottom of their group in Brazil last time, the team known as Samurai Blue will be hoping the pattern will continue and they can reach the knockout stages in Russia.
With a squad lacking the star names of many other World Cup rivals, Halilhodzic will hope to draw on a group of dependable starters with plenty of top-flight European experience.
The two Shinjis — Kagawa, of Borussia Dortmund, and Okasaki, of Leicester City — are two of the highest-profile names, but both were left out of the recent friendly defeats to Brazil and Belgium, as well as the critical 2-0 victory over Australia in August that secured Japan’s place in the draw for Russia 2018.
One player who did feature in that match was 21-year-old Yosuke Ideguchi, who is causing a lot of excitement in Japan.
The midfielder scored the second goal against Australia and is widely touted to play a key role in Russia after picking up Rookie of the Year honours in the J-League last season.
Fans can also expect Samurai Blue to be tough to break down.
They conceded only seven goals in their 10 qualification games, with a wealth of European nous to call on in Hiroki Sakai, of Marseille, Gotoku Sakai, of Hamburg, and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida, alongside international cap centurion Yuto Nagamoto, of Inter Milan.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant,; Editing by Neville Dalton