Japan's World Cup preparations under intense scrutiny

Four years ago, 700 fans saw Japan off at Tokyo's Narita Airport. Last weekend, the squad departed for the 2018 World Cup and only 150 made the trip to farewell the Samurai Blue.

Confidence that the team can get out of what should be a passable group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland is low.

Japan left the Land of the Rising Sun in 2014 not just with the cheers of hundreds of fans ringing in their ears but with a real belief that the second-round finishes of 2002 and 2010 could be bettered. That Alberto Zaccheroni's side took just a single point in a miserable tournament is not the only reason for the relative lack of excitement this time around. Plenty has happened, or not happened, since.

Zaccheroni didn't last too long after the 2014 tournament. A disappointing quarterfinal exit against the United Arab Emirates at the 2015 Asian Cup helped ensure that replacement Javier Aguirre did not stick around long either.

Vahid Halilhodzic, the man who led Algeria to the last 16 in Brazil, came in next. Under the Bosnian, the team beat Australia 2-0 and qualified for a sixth successive World Cup with a game to spare. Performances along the road to Russia were not totally convincing but there are plenty of examples of teams doing just what needs to be done and then throwing off the shackles. Results since, however, have been poor. Since that over the Socceroos in August, Halilhodzic managed just three wins in the following nine games and those came against New Zealand, North Korea and China.

In April -- just two months before Japan's opening World Cup game against Colombia -- the Bosnian was fired. The reason was partly due to those results but also, according to the Japan FA, communication and trust issues with the players. Halilhodzic, also dismissed ahead of the 2010 World Cup by Ivory Coast, may not have helped himself by demonstrating that he was ready to drop the big three attacking stars -- Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki.

"When Keisuke Honda was dropped from the team in autumn 2017, things started to get strange," said Kozo Tashima, the Japan FA CEO after the dismissal of Halilhodzic.

"The results got worse, TV ratings dropped, and national expectations lowered. There has never been as low a point as this until now."

Tashima turned to Akira Nishino, former coach of Gamba Osaka, until the end of the World Cup. The 63-year-old is seen as a safe pair of hands and his final squad was safe to the point of uninspiring. Those who wanted an injection of youth and potential were disappointed.

There are a number of young talents impressing in Europe such as Ritsu Doan of Groningen and Portuguese-based star Shoya Nakajima but they were overlooked. With an average age of just over 28, this is the oldest squad that Japan have ever taken to a World Cup. But when you appoint a conservative coach on a short-term contract, a lack of bolters should not be a surprise.

The hope now is that the big stars shine. Kagawa, the toast of Asian football in the first two or three years of this decade, has not performed consistently for his country for some time -- the midfielder was famously dropped by Zaccheroni during the 2014 World Cup. Injuries and indifferent club form have limited his influence for Japan since, and there was a real possibility that he would not start under Halilhodzic. Honda too had lost his talismanic status. The pair were sometimes sublime together a few years ago and will need to be again.

In getting the band back together, Nishino has nailed his establishment colours to the mast. He, and the JFA, will be judged by results in June. The one friendly game so far was not encouraging as Ghana came to Yokohama and won 2-0 in the late May rain. The smattering of jeers on the final whistle was as much due to a flat performance than the result. A three-man defence didn't look comfortable and despite plenty of pretty passes in midfield, the Samurai Blue created little.

Friday's friendly with Switzerland is looking very important. Not just in terms of last-minute checks of formations and players but to avoid a winless streak stretching to five games and put a spring back into the step of a team that looks a little stale.

Japan's preparation then ends against Paraguay. In 2010, the South Americans pipped Japan for a place in the quarterfinals after a penalty shootout. That was a good tournament for a team that had been even worse in the build-up.

That history of eight years ago may repeat itself is a small straw to clutch. At the moment, however, a repeat of 2014 looks likelier than a repeat of 2010.