Japan drew a seriously short straw in the 2013 Confederations Cup. If they swapped places with any team from Group B, they'd probably be favorites to qualify for the knockout stage. In Group A, they're definitely favorites to finish third, and they might be staring last place in the face if Mexico figures out that they actually have attacking talent at any point in the next week and a half.
The Japanese are one of two sides to have already punched their ticket to the 2014 World Cup, the other being hosts Brazil. They were the first team to qualify, clinching a top-two spot in Group B of Asian qualifying before the final round of matches. Between that run and their victory in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, they've established themselves as the strongest side on the continent.
Though Maya Yoshida and Keisuke Honda are top-notch athletes, the Japanese squad is, for the most part, smaller and a bit less athletic than most elite international sides. What they lack in size and speed, they make up for in technical ability and excellent tactical discipline. Their central midfielders are excellent at slowing down counters and their attacking midfielders have a surprisingly high defensive work rate.
Manager Alberto Zaccheroni had a thing for back threes during his days as a manager in Serie A, but he's opted to use a back four as Japan manager. Considering his team's abundance of attacking midfielders and lack of central defense depth, it's probably for the best.
Projected starting lineup (4-2-3-1)
This Japanese team looks a lot like the Japan teams that experienced success at the 2010 World Cup and 2011 AFC Asian Cup. They keep their shape well, they counter quickly, and they have some creativity in attacking midfield positions. Recently, they've been playing with no true wingers, instead opting to try to fit all three of their No. 10s in the same team. It works.
There are a couple of wildcards here. One is at right wing, where Hiroshi Kiyotake isn't exactly locked in. What Japan does on the right wing could be dependent on Alberto Zaccheroni's tactics for the given match or simply who looks better in training. Shinji Okazaki, who could start on te right is more of an inside forward and goal-scorer, while Kiyotake is a creator. At center forward, Maeda faces competition from Mike Havenaar. Okazaki and Honda are also capable of playing up top if needed.
Player to watch
Yasuhito Endo. Endo has been playing for Japan forever and has 130 caps. He was one of their best players at the last World Cup, but he'll find a way to surprise some people anyway. He's been in the J. League Best XI for a consecutive decade and manages to control the midfield against high-level opposition despite looking like the pudgy hunchbacked dude at an old-timers' pickup game. His range of passing is sick and he's surprisingly solid defensively.
Third place in Group A. Don't be surprised to see Japan get out of their group -- they're very capable of beating any team in the world -- but they're very clearly behind Brazil and Italy on talent. They're probably behind Mexico on raw talent as well, but Mexico are in hilariously lame form right now, having drawn eight times in 2013. Brazil will probably be hyped for the opener and beat Japan in a manner that they'd never be able to pull off on a neutral site. That will put them into a must-not-lose situation against Italy, which is rough. They might be out of it by the time they meet Mexico.