Tall order for Young Samurai Blue

After being drawn in what some sections of the Japanese media have dubbed the FIFA U-17 World Cup's "nightmare group," Japan are simply hoping to progress to the knock-out stage in Nigeria.

That in itself would be a considerable achievement for Japan, who were knocked out of the 2001 and 2007 editions at the group stage and did not even qualify in 2003 and 2005. But despite this modest record, U-17 coach Yutaka Ikeuchi is far from downcast that the young Samurai Blue will face three-time champions Brazil, Switzerland and Mexico at the group stage in October.

"We've ended up with former champions Brazil and Mexico, but I really wanted to play against the strong teams so I think in that regard this group is where we want to be," said the former international defender who has groomed this team for two years. "We've prepared really well and I just want to go as far as we can in this World Cup," he added.

After a tour of Burkina Faso in June, the team came seventh in August's Villarreal International Youth Tournament, where they played against youth squads from AC Milan, Real Madrid, Celtic and Villarreal. The player who caught the eye of many observers was Takashi Usami, a forward whose tactical awareness and all-round skills could hold the key to Japan's hopes in Nigeria. The inside word is that Usami could be the most talented player ever to emerge from Gamba Osaka's superb youth academy, which has produced internationals of the calibre of Stade Rennais midfielder Junichi Inamoto and central defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, who captained Japan at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™.

Japan played with a 4-4-2 formation during the Asian preliminaries but are expected to switch to a 4-2-3-1 line-up for the finals in Nigeria. Takumi Miyayoshi, who at just 17 has turned heads with his performances for Kyoto Sanga, is likely to be the sole striker with Usami tucked in behind him to add some attacking impetus.

"We don't want to change how we play depending on the opponent - we want to stick to our own style of football," Ikeuchi said. "Retaining possession will be the key. If we can control the pace of the game, then we just have to rely on our attacking prowess to do the rest."

If the coach opts to revert to the 4-4-2, rangy Cerezo Osaka striker Kenyu Sugimoto will most probably partner the nimble Miyayoshi up front. "Sugimoto's height will prove a handful for our opponents, so that should create some space for me. We have a good understanding and combine well," Miyayoshi said.

While Usami and Miyayoshi have been widely touted as the future of Japanese football, Ikeuchi, who played for Japan during the qualifying rounds for the 1986 FIFA World Cup, believes that his entire squad has the potential to go on to bigger things.

"These young guys are still learning the game and will only improve," he said. "Playing international tournaments is great experience for them and will boost their confidence."

With the country's senior team coach Takeshi Okada talking of "surprising the world" by reaching the semi-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the young Samurai Blue, with Usami and Miyayoshi leading the charge, will be looking to show Okada's men how it is done when they go head-to-head with world's best in Nigeria.