We take an in-depth look at each of the four Southampton players heading to Russia for the 2018 World Cup; part two looks at Maya Yoshida and Japan.
Road to Russia
Japan secured a place at a sixth consecutive World Cup finals after winning their qualification group, a winner-takes-all 2-0 victory over Australia in August 2017 sending them to Russia automatically alongside Saudi Arabia.
The Samurai Blue were just the fourth side to guarantee a spot at the tournament behind Iran, Brazil and this summer’s hosts and it has proved to be a rocky road since then.
Vahid Halilhodzic led Japan through qualifying but a series of unconvincing pre-tournament performances against the likes of Haiti (3-3), South Korea (1-4) and Ukraine (1-2) seemingly cost the experienced Bosnian his position as head coach.
With newly-appointed Akira Nishino at the helm, Japan will be looking for a vast improvement on their performance in Brazil four years ago.
One point and two goals were the sum of their efforts from three group stage matches against Greece, Ivory Coast and Colombia, against whom they kick off their hopes in Russia on Tuesday 19th June.
World Cup Group H fixtures
Colombia vs Japan
Tuesday 19th June (1pm BST)
Japan vs Senegal
Sunday 24th June (4pm BST)
Japan vs Poland
Thursday 28th June (3pm BST)
A former Japan international, Akira Nishino took charge of the senior national team for the first time in April after spells with the U20 and U23 sides – the latter seeing him lead his nation at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The 63-year-old represented his country 12 times as a player but is best known for his exploits in the dugout with Gamba Osaka from 2002 to 2011, where he guided the club to the FIFA Club World Cup semi-finals in 2008 where they were beaten 5-3 by a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United.
Players to watch
Nishino’s first act as head coach was to welcome back the high-profile trio of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki are back after being sidelined by Halilhodzic and their presence should lift the team on and off the pitch.
The two Shinjis will be known from their time in the Premier League with Manchester United and Leicester City but it is veteran Honda who is the talisman of this Japanese team. The playmaker has scored three times for Japan across two World Cup appearances in 2010 and 2014 and netted seven times in qualifying.
Supposedly on the decline after a mixed spell with AC Milan, a terrific scoring record since moving to Mexico to join Pachuca has seen him recover his legendary reputation in his homeland.
Behind him, Maya Yoshida remains the rock of Japan’s defence. After surpassing the 80-cap mark this year, it is impossible to imagine the Samurai Blue without him.
If you are looking for a second team to follow in Russia, Yoshida’s importance to Japan makes them a very strong choice for Saints fans.