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Goal.com's 13 for '13 Asian Football Countdown: Japan

Goal.com's 13 for '13 Asian Football Countdown: Japan

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From Tokyo and Bangkok to Muscat and London, Japan's national teams demonstrated why they finished the year as Fifa's top-ranked Asian nation with memorable performances

SPECIAL
By Hideto Shimizu


INTRODUCTION
After 2011 saw declines in attendance as a result of the March 11 disasters, 2012 was a year of rebuilding as the J-League saw increased attendance and a shift in the balance of power as a pair of non-Kanto teams claimed the top two spots in the league.

Japan's senior team also performed well internationally, continuing on the path toward qualification for Brazil with an undefeated run in the final qualifying round for Asia. The Under-23, Nadeshiko, and futsal sides also gave spectacular performances while wearing the country's trademark blue shirts.

NATIONAL TEAMS

After a dead-rubber loss to Uzbekistan prevented them from winning the group, Japan entered the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup grouped with rivals Australia. The Samurai Blue got off to a flying start in June with home games against Oman and Jordan before earning a tough point away at Australia.

Following wins against Iraq and at Oman in the fall, Japan ended the year leading Group B with 13 points and needing just one win to clinch a spot in Brazil. With an eye on the world's top clubs, Alberto Zaccheroni also brought his squad to Europe, where they shocked France 1-0 before losing 4-0 to a superior Brazil.

Both the men's Under-23 team and Nadeshiko Japan performed well at the 2012 London Olympics, with the Maya Yoshida-led boys finishing in fourth place while Nadeshiko went on to capture silver following a finals loss to the United States.

Japan hosted the U-20 Women's World Cup in August, with the Young Nadeshiko squad winning the bronze. Former national team veteran Kazuyoshi Miura brought attention and excitement to November's Futsal World Cup when he was named to Japan's squad and helped them reach the Round of 16.

There was some disappointment on the year, however, when Japan's Under-19 side failed to capture the AFC Under-19 Championship and missed out on the Fifa Under-20 World Cup for a third consecutive time.

DOMESTIC LEAGUES AND CUPS

Hajime Moriyasu became the first Japanese manager to capture the J-League since 2006 when Sanfrecce Hiroshima their first league title. They narrowly beat out Vegalta Sendai, who were forced to console themselves with a second-place finish and their first-ever Asian Champions League berth. Rounding out the top three was Urawa Reds, who will return to the ACL for the first time since 2008.

Sanfrecce's campaign did not end on December 1, as they went on to finish fifth in the Club World Cup following a narrow quarter-final loss to Al-Ahly and a consolation win over Ulsan Hyundai.

At the bottom of the table, J-League founders Gamba Osaka shocked fans by finishing below the drop zone despite scoring the most goals in the league. They've avenged their weak finish by reaching the finals of the Emperor's Cup, where they will face Kashiwa Reysol for Japan's fourth and final ACL spot.

Reysol are looking for a return to Asian play; they, along with Nagoya Grampus and FC Tokyo were eliminated in the ACL's Round of 16 as Japan's ACL title drought stretched to five years.

In J-League Cup play, Kashima Antlers extended their trophy run across all competitions to six years in a row as they successfully defended their title against Shimizu S-Pulse.

PLAYERS ABROAD

After helping Dortmund defend the Bundesliga and win the DfB Pokal, Shinji Kagawa moved to Manchester United in a groundbreaking move for Japanese players.

He was joined in England by Maya Yoshida, whose star turn in the Olympics earned him a move to Southampton. Ryo Miyaichi was loaned from Arsenal to Wigan, keeping him in the Premier League as well.

Several promising Japanese youngsters including Gotoku Sakai, Hiroki Sakai, and Hiroshi Kiyotake joined the Bundesliga this year, and players like Takashi Inui and Hajime Hosogai impressed German media. With established Japanese communities and ever-increasing international popularity, Germany is quickly becoming the first major stop for young J-League players who are ready to make the jump overseas.

With his superb play on the sides, Yuto Nagatomo's loyalty was rewarded with a contract extension that will see him playing for Inter through 2017.

Samurai Blue bad boy Keisuke Honda remained at CSKA Moscow after a deal with Italy's Lazio fell apart, with other clubs such as Liverpool, Chelsea, and Dortmund reportedly expressing interest in the star's availability in the upcoming transfer period.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR | Hisato Sato, Sanfrecce Hiroshima

After eight seasons with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, 2012 was finally Hisato Sato's year. On the way toward winning the league he broke his personal J1 scoring record with 22 goals on the season, winning the J-League's MVP and Fair Play awards.

Sato also scored three goals in three matches at the FIFA Club World Cup, tying with Monterrey's Cesar Delgado for the Golden Boot. While his poor finishing in the quarter-final loss to Al-Ahly kept Sato from being able to display his talents against Corinthians, his double against Ulsan Hyundai in the consolation match capped off a remarkable season from one of Japan's best domestic players.

MOMENT OF THE YEAR | Nadeshiko show silver smiles at 2012 London Olympics

A year removed from their Women's World Cup triumph, Nadeshiko were no longer underdogs heading into the 2012 London Olympics. But despite an unusual amount of off-the-pitch controversy, including a national debate over unequal treatment of the women's and men's teams sparked by a dispute over airplane seating, Homare Sawa and her team-mates still found themselves in the finals facing the women of the United States.

Unlike the WWC, Nadeshiko were unable to take the match to penalty kicks after falling 2-1 to Carli Lloyd's double. But after the tears, Japan's women were all smiles on the podium, proudly wearing silver medals that came from their unmistakable teamwork.

WISHES FOR JAPANESE FOOTBALL IN 2013

Japan's first and greatest task will be to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, which they can accomplish simply by beating Jordan on the road in March. Once this happens they'll be able to focus on the Confederations Cup, where the Samurai Blue are grouped with Mexico, Italy, and hosts Brazil. The so-called Group of Death will provide Japan with much-needed experience ahead of next year's tournament.

Though certainly of less importance, Japan will also be looking forward to challenging rivals South Korea, China, and Australia in July's East Asian Cup. Coach Zaccheroni is expected to field a squad of younger players, who could become the core of the side that will vie for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

On the club level, Sanfrecce, Vegalta, Reds, and the Emperor's Cup winner will be under pressure to improve Japan's performance in the Asian Champions Leauge. With the Club World Cup moving to Morocco for the next two years, an ACL title is the only ticket available that will allow a Japanese side to face the world's best.

Check out the rest of 13 for '13: South Korea, Australia, Singapore, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia, IndiaVietnamHong Kong

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