For the first time in a long while, Japan heads to a FIFA World Cup arguably without any proven A-grade talent with the uncanny ability to influence the game on their own.
In recent years, their performances on football’s biggest stage have been fueled by the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and even Shinji Okazaki. Going further back, there were standouts like Shunsuke Nakamura, Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Ono.
Even when the Samurai Blue made their World Cup debut back in 1998, it proved to be the stage for a certain Hidetoshi Nakata to come to the fore and eventually earn a move to Europe.
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This year, as they brace for tough tests at Qatar 2022 against Spain and Germany — as well as a less-daunting but equally-tricky tie with Costa Rica — it is difficult to highlight one specific individual that will be integral to their fortunes .
To look at it negatively would be to simply say that this Samurai Blue team is bereft of star players.
But that is not to say there is no genuine quality at coach Hajime Moriyasu’s disposal.
It is after all a team sport. And with no clear dangerman for opposition teams to channel their attention on, the Japanese could even have an element of unpredictability they did not possess in previous years.
So in lieu of one single X-factor player, who are the less-recognizable names that could combine to fuel Japan’s quest to reach the Round of 16?
The most obvious candidate is former Liverpool attacker Takumi Minamino, who has succeeded Kagawa in both the No. 10 jersey and the playmaker-in-chief duties.
Minamino’s resume is impressive enough yet he has not enjoyed the best of times in recent years, and his form has hardly picked up since leaving Liverpool for Monaco in search of greater first-team opportunities.
Instead, a similarly-hyped prospect that looks more likely to star for the Samurai Blue in Qatar is Takefusa Kubo.
Still only 21, Kubo can already count both Barcelona and Real Madrid among his former clubs and is now finding his feet in LaLiga since moving to Real Sociedad on a permanent deal at the start of this season.
Another man that has found form in the lead-up to the World Cup is Kaoru Mitoma, who could form a potent double act with Kubo down both wings.
Having had to bide his time for a shot in the Brighton lineup, the silky-skilled attacker’s final three matches before the World Cup break were all starts — where he contributed an impressive two goals and an assist.
Slightly further back, Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita — both based in Europe with Stuttgart and Sporting CP respectively — rarely make the headlines but are always guaranteed to get the job done in holding midfield.
In defence, captain Maya Yoshida remains an influential presence but his long-term successor has already emerged in the man he will line up alongside — Arsenal man Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Yet, perhaps the one man who could really decide how far Japan gets at the World Cup is Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada.
A revelation so far this term, Kamada has racked up 12 goals in 22 matches playing for a team that is currently fourth in the Bundesliga and through to the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League. And he plays in midfield.
Somewhat of a late bloomer, Kamada was hardly touted as a next big thing when he came through at Sagan Tosu and, even after being signed by Frankfurt in 2017, he still had to serve his apprenticeship on loan in Belgium with Sint-Truiden.
Nevertheless, he eventually earned his chance. Ten goals in 48 games in the 2019-20 season — his first year back from that loan spell. Nine goals in 46 appearances last term, including five in Frankfurt’s UEFA Europa League-winning campaign.
To where he is now, a genuine rising star of the Bundesliga, even if it has come a big later than usual at the age of 26.
There are others with plenty more to offer the Samurai Blue.
The veterans Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo that will offer stability in the fullback positions. Livewires Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito and Ao Tanaka, who could all provide a moment of magic. Even one-time Arsenal prospect Takuma Asano, who has probably not kicked on as some would have expected in his club career but has a habit of coming good for his national team.
None of these players will be mentioned as genuine A-listers in world football, but it will not bother them nor Moriyasu.
Together, they could make for a top-quality team.
And if they somehow overcome either Germany or Spain and even squeeze their way into the Round of 16 at this World Cup, there is a high chance a few of the Samurai Blue’s new generation will be regarded as stars by the time the tournament is over.