RENNES, FRANCE - Coach Asako Takakura insisted there is more to come from her young team after Nadeshiko Japan gave its Women’s World Cup campaign a shot in the arm by beating Scotland 2-1 on Friday.
Forward Mana Iwabuchi and Yuika Sugasawa scored first-half goals as the team held on for the win against its Group D opponent.
Having been in control for most of the match, Takakura’s side endured a nervous finish at Roazhon Park after substitute forward Lana Clelland capitalized on a defensive mistake to score for Scotland with two minutes left.
The 2011 champions nevertheless took a big step toward the knockout stage with the win, and were overall much sharper than in their tournament opener, when they were held to a scoreless draw by unfancied Argentina.
“It was a must-win game and, although there were difficult moments, we needed to be aggressive and score goals, and that is what we did,” said the coach, whose starting lineup featured six players age 23 or under, including 19-year-old Jun Endo.
“We were not really able to be ourselves in the first match, but we really had to win this game and I think we were more like ourselves again.
“We have beaten a wonderful Scottish team, but there is room for improvement so we will discuss how we can get better.”
Still, world No. 7 Japan dictated the flow from the outset of the match and spent long stretches applying attacking pressure against the 20th-ranked Scots.
Veteran defender Aya Sameshima said Japan had made a concerted effort to be more aggressive after an overly cautious start against Argentina.
“Basically after the last game, we wanted to come out differently and attack from the start. We thought (Scotland) might be pressured into giving up own goals, so we wanted to push forward as much as we could,” Sameshima said.
“Obviously at the end there were some things we needed to do better,” she said.
Takakura made two changes to the side that faced Argentina, starting veteran striker Iwabuchi ahead of Kumi Yokoyama and replacing injury-hampered winger Yui Hasegawa with 19-year-old Jun Endo.
The new starters vindicated their manager when they connected on Japan’s opener in the 23rd minute. Attacking from the left, Endo found Iwabuchi in space near the edge of the area. The INAC Kobe Leonessa striker took one touch before beating Scotland ‘keeper Lee Alexander with a dipping shot from inside the arc.
“We were really pressing forward to score from the start, and in that situation, I had only one option. Iwabuchi was there, and we made it happen,” Endo said.
“I was really nervous at the start, but after we scored, I could loosen up and enjoy myself.”
Iwabuchi, a late substitute against Argentina, nearly doubled the lead three minutes later but had her close-range shot blocked by Scotland defender Jenny Beattie.
Sugasawa earned Japan’s 37th-minute penalty when she was tugged from behind by defender Rachel Corsie while making a break into the area.
The 28-year-old forward sent Alexander the wrong way as she confidently slotted the kick in the bottom right corner.
Scotland’s best chance of the opening half came three minutes from the break when forward Erin Cuthbert shot over the bar from the edge of the area.
Japan almost went into halftime up 3-0, with Hina Sugita hitting the woodwork from close range after a cross from Endo in additional time.
Scotland made a stronger effort in the second half but were largely unable to break down Japan’s defense. But the Scots were gifted a lifeline in the 88th minute when center-back Nana Ichise miscued a pass from the sideline straight to Clelland, who scored with a stunning shot from the corner of the box.
Hasegawa, who hurt her left ankle against Argentina, entered the match as an 81st-minute substitute. She helped create a chance for Rikako Kobayashi in injury time, but the substitute forward’s close-range shot was blocked by Alexander.
Japan will play its final group game against England in Nice on Wednesday. Takakura said she hopes to see further improvement from her team in its showdown against the world No. 3 side.
“From this game, we need to learn to control the flow of the game better, and that requires the players to be stronger mentally,” Takakura said.