MARUGAME, KAGAWA PREF. – Talismanic midfielder Homare Sawa marked her return to the national team with the winner as Nadeshiko Japan edged New Zealand 1-0 on Sunday in a warm-up for its title defense at the upcoming Women’s World Cup in Canada.
The 36-year-old former Women’s World Player of the Year, recalled after a one-year absence, volleyed home on 23 minutes and Norihiro Sasaki’s side saw the game out after surviving a couple of scares at Marugame Stadium.
“You have to try and win through a tournament at the World Cup and it was great that we could win and keep a clean sheet today,” said Sawa. “This gives us something to build on for our first World Cup game. It was a good performance.
“It’s been a while since I played for my country and I am delighted I was able to wear the blue No. 10 shirt,” she added.
New Zealand looked lively in the opening stages, but Japan took the lead when Sawa, who is headed to her sixth consecutive World Cup, turned in a corner from the left by Aya Miyama for her 83rd goal in 198 national team appearances.
“It was a great ball in from Miyama and it was just a case of getting a touch on it,” said Sawa.
Japan went close on a couple more occasions as it went on to dominate the rest of the first half before New Zealand squandered a great opportunity to equalize when Hannah Wilkinson scooped a dubiously awarded penalty over the crossbar in the 49th minute.
Azusa Iwashimizu cleared Amber Hearn’s goal-bound header off the line in the 58th minute as New Zealand pushed for an equalizer but Japan carried the game out without too many more problems.
“Sawa the god led us to victory,” said Sasaki with a smile. “She has got her stuff and the gods were also kind to us with the (missed) penalty.
“We got the win but there are things we need to reflect on. That said, we can take something from the way we defended in this tough game.”
Japan has one more tune-up against Italy in Nagano Prefecture on Thursday before it launches its World Cup defense against Switzerland in Group C in Vancouver on June 8.
Sasaki’s team then faces off against Cameroon in Vancouver on June 12 before wrapping up the group phase four days later against Ecuador in Winnipeg.
Japan stunned favorites the United States 3-1 on penalties to win the Women’s World Cup for the first time after a 2-2 draw in extra time in the final in Frankfurt four years ago.
Sawa led Sasaki’s side to the 2011 title as tournament MVP and top scorer, but she had not been selected since the Women’s Asian Cup in May last year due to poor form stemming from a number of injuries.
The World Cup triumph, Japan’s first at any level and the first by an Asian team, remains one of the biggest sporting achievements in the country’s history.
It also provided a welcome boost four months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan’s northeast coast and triggered a major nuclear crisis.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5