- Led by a veteran cast, Japan is back on the World Cup stage, but in a balanced group can it fare any better than its woeful 2014 showing?
Japan heads into a sixth consecutive World Cup after narrowly securing its place through Asia's qualifying process, and it'll be looking for an improvement on its last run.
The Samurai Blue scored just two goals in 2014's World Cup, as they crashed out in the group stage, but they may fancy their chances in advancing this time around in a balanced by manageable group.
Despite qualifying under the leadership of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, the Japanese will head into the tournament with the guidance of former international star Akira Nishino, after Halilhodzic's feisty relationship with the Japanese FA forced those in charge to dismiss the manager.
Player such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki help make up a decent, yet aging Japan squad. Here's a closer look at Japan's World Cup prospects.
How They Qualified
Japan, per usual, was a favorite to head to Russia out of the AFC qualifying campaign, but it made it by just a single point in the final round.
In the second round, under Halilhodzic, Japan won seven out of their eight games, scoring 27 goals and not conceding a single one. Its only dropped points came in a 0-0 draw against Syria.
Things got much more difficult for the Japanese in the third round, though, as they narrowly avoided slipping into the playoffs, topping their group with Australia and Saudi Arabia finishing just a point behind.
Japan secured qualification on August 31 of last year, when it beat Australia 2-0 in Saitama, Japan.
Group Stage Games
Japan will be a part of Group H, where it will play Colombia, Senegal and Poland in what looks like a fairly close group.
Although Japan will not be favorites to advance, if it can pick up points against Colombia in the opening game, it will certainly contest for second place at least.
Nishino's men will then face off with Senegal before closing out the group against Poland, which could turn out to be a playoff-like scenario to see who advances.
Possible Route to the Final
If Japan can get out of Group H, it will face off with either the runner-up or winner of Group G, which could be either England or Belgium.
If Japan can upset the odds and get past either Group G opponent, it would face off with a member of Group E or Group F, which could be the likes of Brazil, Germany, Mexico or Switzerland.
The Samurai Blue will certainly not be favorites to advance that far, but if they do, the likes of France, Spain and Argentina will likely be waiting for them in the last four.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)
(4-4-3): Eiji Kawashima; Makoto Hasebe, Tomoaki Makino, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Gaku Shibasaki; Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yuya Osako.
Of Japan's 23-man squad, 14 are based in Europe. Players such as Yoshida, Kagawa, Nagatomo and Okazaki are no stranger to big games, in tough, fast-paced leagues.
However, it is an aging squad, and stars such as Honda, Okazaki and captain Hasebe are all into their 30s and way past their best.
It is no surprise to see that Kagawa was the main man during Japan's rugged qualification, and without his six goals, it is highly likely that Japan would not even be traveling to Russia. If the Samurai Blue are to get out of the group for what would be only the third time in their history, the Borussia Dortmund star must continue his form.
Japan's squad contains four players with more than 80 caps, and these experienced heads will be crucial in Russia, but what could be their Achilles heel is that their new manager Akira Nishino has only been in charge for the three warm-up games.
They'll fancy their chances, but a third-place group finish may be its fate.