Japan has made it through to the knockout phase of the Women’s World Cup with the minimum of fuss, but the reigning champions will have to move up a gear if they are serious about defending their title.
Japan began its campaign with a 1-0 win over Switzerland last Monday before beating Cameroon 2-1 four days later to clinch a place in the last 16 regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s final group game against Ecuador. Japan’s craft and class was apparent in both matches, but there are still rough edges to smooth out before the tournament reaches a stage where opponents do not allow mistakes to go unpunished.
“The team deserves credit for winning two difficult games while dealing with the expectations of defending the title,” wrote former Nadeshiko defender Kyoko Yano in Sunday’s Nikkan Sports. “But the truth is that some aspects of their play are not going well. It’s important to get to the root of the problem before the knockout round starts.
“The biggest thing is that, although Japan is keeping the ball, it is also giving it away cheaply. They need to work out whether that’s because the support is slow or if it’s down to individual errors of judgment.”
Japan could certainly have made life easier for itself after taking the lead in both matches. Norio Sasaki’s side faded as time went on and allowed Switzerland and Cameroon back into contention, and the fact that Japan has the second-oldest squad in the tournament, behind the United States, is surely no coincidence.
Nine of the starting lineup against the Swiss — including 36-year-old Homare Sawa — are veterans of the 2011 World Cup-winning squad, but with age comes experience and the two games so far suggest that could be a precious commodity in this tournament.
Japan’s tactical nous and flexibility have been on full display, with Sasaki switching between formations and shuffling lineups to devastating effect. The manager’s five changes for the team to face Cameroon quickly paid off when Nahomi Kawasumi lacerated the Africans’ defense to set up the opening goal, and the squad has a depth and versatility that few of its rivals can match.
“The first half was perfect,” wrote former Nadeshiko midfielder Tomomi Miyamoto in Sunday’s Sports Nippon. “(Aya) Sameshima and Kawasumi were in the starting lineup to use their speed and hurt Cameroon down the wings, and using (Yukari) Kinga to shut off the opposition’s attacks worked like a charm.”
Keeping that up for 90 minutes, however, is likely to prove much more difficult against the tournament’s big guns. Japan can take heart from the fact that France, the U.S. and Sweden have all dropped points so far, but the defending champions know they will have to be at their best to retain the title.
With players of the caliber of Kawasumi, Yuki Ogimi and the sublimely talented Aya Miyama in the ranks, Japan certainly has the potential to make it to Vancouver for the final on July 5.
But to get that far, improvements must first be made.