Soccer / Women's World Cup | SOCCER SCENE

Gritty Japan gathering steam ahead of semifinal against England

by Andrew McKirdy

Japan is still waiting to ignite at the Women’s World Cup, but the slow burn that has carried the team all the way to the semifinals may yet be enough to take it further.

Japan faces England in Edmonton on Wednesday with a place in Sunday’s final against the United States in Vancouver the prize for the winner. The defending champions may have won each of their five games in Canada so far by only a single-goal margin, but with each victory comes increased confidence and it will be a battle-hardened unit indeed that takes the field for the semifinal.

“Make no mistake, winning these tough games by only one goal has made the team grow within a very short space of time,” said Japan manager Norio Sasaki after his side’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over Australia on Saturday.

Japan slugged it out against the Australians before finally making the breakthrough in the 87th minute, and it will have pleased Sasaki to see his team finish strongly after conceding late goals in previous games against Cameroon and the Netherlands. The presence of so many veterans from the 2011 World Cup-winning squad has raised questions over Japan’s stamina, but the benefit of their experience has been obvious.

“(Homare) Sawa only came on as a substitute at the end against Australia, but she really does play a vital role,” former Nadeshiko defender Kyoko Yano wrote of Japan’s 36-year-old talisman in Monday’s Nikkan Sports. “She also came on late against the Netherlands, and at that time in the game you really want to defend your lead until the end.

“Make no mistake, it’s tough when you have to work hard. But when Sawa came on, it gave the players a lift and renewed their determination to win. Of course her play also contributes in attack and defense, but the effect she has on team spirit is huge.”

The ability to grind out results while not playing at maximum capacity is often the hallmark of a champion, and Japan’s fierce determination has indeed been the defining characteristic of its campaign so far. Whether that will be enough to take the team further than the semifinals remains to be seen, however, and another game-changing cameo from 22-year-old Mana Iwabuchi, Japan’s match-winner against Australia, would not go amiss against England.

“Iwabuchi isn’t a typical Japanese player — she can carry the ball forward and shoot,” wrote former Nadeshiko midfielder Tomomi Miyamoto in Monday’s Sports Nippon. “The way she conceals the ball when dribbling makes opponents hesitate before making a tackle. She’s like (Lionel) Messi the way she has the skill to wait until the last second before a tackle comes in.”

The fact that Japan’s seven goals so far have been scored by seven different players proves that the campaign has been a collective effort. But a World Cup semifinal is the stage where the world’s top players must stand up and make their mark, and if Iwabuchi, Aya Miyama or Yuki Ogimi can deliver the touch of magic that makes the difference, Japan can again look forward to another final.

The team has dug deep to get this far. But to progress even further, it may need to find a higher gear still.