Japan’s women set off in search of Olympic soccer gold with a spring in their step after beating Australia 3-0 on Wednesday, but their male counterparts were left frustrated after conceding an injury-time equalizer to draw 1-1 with New Zealand in their final home warmup games.
Women’s world player of the year Homare Sawa got on the scoresheet as Nadeshiko Japan swept Australia aside in a double-header at National Stadium, and Takashi Sekizuka’s men looked on the same course until Dakota Lucas canceled out Kenyu Sugimoto’s 71st-minute opener with almost the last kick of the match.
Sawa smashed a shot past Australia goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri moments before making way for substitute Asuna Tanaka in the 58th minute, and the veteran midfielder was thankful for the confidence boost ahead of her fourth Olympics after missing part of the year with vertigo.
“We had a lot of chances in the first half, and we should have been able to take them,” said Sawa. “The manager told me I was only going to play for 10 minutes of the second half, so I asked him for 15 and he said I could have 12. Thankfully I got my goal while I had the chance.”
Sekizuka’s men looked sharp as they took the game to New Zealand, with Nagoya Grampus forward Kensuke Nagai going close from long range before Borussia Monchengladbach striker Yuki Otsu tried his luck with a spectacular overhead kick that tested the opposition goalkeeper.
But New Zealand almost made the home side pay for not taking its chances, with Michael McGlinchey forcing a save from Shuichi Gonda from a free kick on the edge of the area shortly before halftime.
Nagai hit the post as Japan redoubled its efforts after the break, and Otsu shot wide as New Zealand looked ever more capable of digging its heels in and claiming a scoreless draw.
Sugimoto finally prised an opening midway through the second half, stuffing the ball home from close range after All Whites goalkeeper Jake Gleeson had spilled a shot from overage defender Yuhei Tokunaga.
But substitute Lucas had the last laugh, pouncing in injury time to deny the home side the win and sending them to London in gloomy spirits.
Japan’s women wasted little time asserting their dominance over the Australians, and it was no surprise when midfield schemer Aya Miyama gave the reigning world champions the lead in the 25th minute. Nahomi Kawasumi went down under a challenge in the penalty box, and Miyama sent Barbieri the wrong way with her coolly taken spot kick.
Yuki Ogimi made it two on the stroke of halftime, sliding in on goal to connect with a perfectly executed cross from Yukari Kinga.
And Sawa made sure she would leave her mark on the game before departing, drilling in Japan’s third with a right-foot shot as the Australians failed to clear a corner.
“We wanted to make a good start to the match, and we were able to do that,” said Nadeshiko manager Norio Sasaki. “Australia have very good individual players, and we were able to nullify their threat. But we need to be more offensive after we score, and we also made some passing mistakes. Simple mistakes like that shouldn’t happen, and we have to improve before the Olympics.”
Nadeshiko Japan take on Canada on July 25 in Coventry and Sweden at the same venue three days later, before rounding off the group stage against South Africa in Cardiff on July 31.
Australia did not qualify for the July 25-Aug. 9 tournament, but after seeing his side comprehensively outplayed, Matildas manager Tom Sermanni believes Japan will be a match for anyone.
“I think we saw the difference between an exceptional team that is very well prepared and ready to go to the Olympics, and an inexperienced team without much time to prepare,” he said. “It probably felt like some teams feel playing against Barcelona or Spain.
“We found it very difficult to get the ball, and when we did we were under a lot of pressure. We expected that, and Japan played an excellent match.”
Japan’s men begin their campaign against Spain in Glasgow on July 26, before playing Morocco in Newcastle on July 29 and Honduras in Coventry on Aug. 1.