World Cup 2014: Hot times ahead for Samurai Blue

Keisuke Honda ended a scoring drought in Japan’s final World Cup warmup match against Zambia, and hopes are high he can continue to find the net in Brazil

The Samurai Blue's fifth venture into World Cup action starts Saturday, two days after host Brazil and Croatia kick off the event.

Japan's results in its previous appearances are divided-the team made it to the last 16 in 2002 and 2010, but struggled in the group stages in 1998 and 2006 and did not advance.

Japan's biggest issue is whether or not it can progress to the knockout stage for the second consecutive tournament. The key to surviving group play lies not only in matching up to the strength of the opponents, but mitigating circumstances that include heat and travel distance.

Japan will face Cote d'Ivoire, Greece and Colombia in the group stage. None of those teams will be easy to handle for Japan, ranked 46th in the FIFA world rankings as of June 5. Colombia is No. 8, Greece is ranked 12th and Cote d'Ivoire No. 23.

Despite differences in playing style, the teams in Japan's group have a common thread: physical toughness.

Japan's first match against Cote d'Ivoire will be a yardstick for the Samurai Blue, who will use it to gauge their chances of reaching the knockout stage.

The African team features a large number of renown players such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo, Didier Zokora and Gervinho, who are highly skilled and athletic.

"To my regret, we've been placed in a group with a team that I think is the best in Africa," Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni said after the draw was announced in December.

The match will take place in the northern city of Recife. The hot and humid climate of the city could work as an advantage for the African team, which is used to playing in such conditions.

However, the African team's weakness comes in its lack of cohesion.

Good track record against Africans

The Samurai Blue will unlikely be daunted in facing Cote d'Ivoire, as they have a decent history in matchups against African teams-Japan edged Cameroon in its first meeting in the 2010 tournament, and beat Ghana in a friendly in September.

Cote d'Ivoire's key player is Yaya Toure, a Manchester City midfielder who has been named the African Player of the Year for three straight years from 2012 to 2014. He excels on the defensive side, with his tackles and interceptions, while also being a decisive factor on offence because of his passing, dribbling and shooting.

Five days later, Japan faces Greece in Natal, also a northern city. Japan is expected to dominate possession, but Greece is fully aware of the Samurai Blue's style of play.

The European team has solid defence and is confident in its ability to counterattack and use set plays, so Japan cannot let its guard down no matter how much the game starts to go in its favour.

Stamina is crucial to maintain Japan's style of play, which features speed and quick passes, so the high temperatures of the city might be a concern. Another possible key is how well Japan's players recover from fatigue after the first match.

Greece's key player is Sokratis Papastathopoulos, a Borussia Dortmund centerback who leads the team's tall group of defenders.

In its last group match five days later, the Samurai Blue take on Colombia, considered the favourite of Group C. Cuiaba is about 2,500 kilometers away from Natal, and is known for its sticky climate.

Because Japan plays all its group matches in hot cities, Zaccheroni might be liberal with his reserves in the games, replacing starters with fresh players.

That means players such as Hotaru Yamaguchi and Masato Morishige, who usually play as substitutes, might play key roles in Brazil.

Colombia has dropped its ace striker Radamel Falcao from its 23-member squad, with his recovery from a knee injury taking more time than expected. However, the team does not lack talent, with James Rodriguez as the prime example.

The 22-year-old Monaco midfielder is touted as the "new Valderrama," as his deft ball handling skills and sharp passing are reminiscent of Carlos Valderrama, a star midfielder who led Colombia in the 1990s.

Removing the rust

As the opening of the World Cup looms, there has been some good news for Japan-the team's two key players are regaining their form.

One of the concerns of the Samurai Blue was that Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa struggled at their clubs this past season.

Honda scored only two goals in 16 Italian league and cup matches after joining AC Milan from CSKA Moscow in January. Kagawa ended the 2013-14 season at Manchester United scoreless, his first such experience since becoming a pro.

Kagawa shone in a pre-World Cup match against Costa Rica on June 2, scoring a goal and creating many

scoring chances. He also scored in the next warmup against Zambia last Friday.

In the Zambia game, Honda ended his scoring drought with the national team with a pair of goals. He had been scoreless with the Samurai Blue since a friendly against Belgium in November.