For the first time in over a year, Nadeshiko Japan head coach Asako Takakura has seen her players on the pitch.

But after two successive 7-0 victories against minnow opponents, it’s still not clear whether the former world champion is ready to take on the likes of the powerhouse United States or high-flying Germany in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

The team’s two friendlies on April 8 and 11 — against 47th-ranked Paraguay and 59th-ranked Panama, respectively — allowed Japan’s players to show what they are capable of. But Takakura wants to see more from her charges, particularly on the attack, as they prepare to contend for a gold medal on home soil beginning in July.

“We haven’t attempted shots from distance, and that’s something I’ve been trying to impart on the team,” Takakura said. “Against Paraguay we weren’t on target but the players at least tried to take longer shots. Today (against Panama) they didn’t.

“We’ve been working on crosses, set plays and other variations in training, but our accuracy isn’t there yet and we’re still in the process of improving that, so we have to continue working hard.”

Nadeshiko head coach Asako Takakura instructs players during Sunday's game. | KYODO
Nadeshiko head coach Asako Takakura instructs players during Sunday’s game. | KYODO

With the squad’s WE League players still in preseason mode, Japan’s Europe-based players shined especially brightly in both friendlies.

Aston Villa striker Mana Iwabuchi was a force to be reckoned with, scoring twice against Paraguay and involving herself in seven other goals across the two games, including a pinpoint cross to assist Yuka Sugasawa’s third goal against Panama.

Midfielder Yui Hasegawa, who has steadily made an impact at AC Milan since joining the club from Tokyo Verdy Beleza in January, arrived in Japan too late to face Paraguay — but made up for it on Sunday with her team’s third goal as well as involvement in the buildup of the four that followed.

“I would have liked some more time to adjust to the team, but you can’t make tough conditions an excuse,” said Hasegawa, who credited her short time in Italy with helping her to manage the physicality of foreign players.

“I’ve only been in Italy for a few months and it’s too soon for me to say that I’ve developed a lot,” she said. “However, over there the play has a lot of physical contact, and while I might not have been able to demonstrate it today I hope I’ll be able to make use of it going forward."

Japan's Yui Hasegawa challenges Panama's Yanixa Batista for the ball on Sunday. | KYODO
Japan’s Yui Hasegawa challenges Panama’s Yanixa Batista for the ball on Sunday. | KYODO

But neither did Japan’s domestic selections shy away from the chance to impress, with Urawa Reds forward Sugasawa’s impressive hat trick against Panama raising the 30-year-old’s profile as she aims for her first Olympic selection.

The Chiba native, who has 73 appearances for Nadeshiko, insists that while WE League clubs will only play a handful of preseason games before the Tokyo Games, they will still be instrumental in helping players improve their match fitness.

“We don’t have much time until the Olympics and the WE League’s preseason matches will be very important, so I want to use those to improve my condition,” Sugasawa said. “We’ll also have a few national team games, so I hope we can raise our strength individually and as a team.”

Key to getting the Nadeshiko ready for the Olympics will be its two friendlies in the next international window, on June 10 in Hiroshima and June 13 in Tochigi. On Sunday, Sugasawa expressed hope that Japan’s opponents in those games would represent a stronger test than the countries she and her teammates faced this month.

Nadeshiko players celebrate Yuika Sugasawa's hat trick at the National Stadium. | KYODO
Nadeshiko players celebrate Yuika Sugasawa’s hat trick at the National Stadium. | KYODO

“If you’re trying to simulate the Olympics, I want to play against a fast and powerful team,” she said. “I don’t have any specific preference but I’d like to play someone strong.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Takakura, who recognized the difficulties of scheduling friendlies against European opposition in the shadow of the pandemic — even as the continent hosted friendlies between the United States and Sweden as well as Australia and Germany over the weekend.

“If we’re contending for a medal, we have to play against higher-ranked countries,” Takakura said. “But right now it’s difficult for a European team to come here or for us to go to Europe. Right now negotiations are continuing and we’re moving toward playing teams who will be at the Olympics (or at that level).”

There was just as much uncertainty off the pitch, with Sunday’s relatively small crowd of 4,036 representing less than half the 10,000 tickets that had been available.

While a number of factors — including concerns over the risk of COVID-19 infections, ticket prices starting at ¥3,000 ($27.45) for adults and clashes with high-profile J. League fixtures in the Tokyo area — could explain the attendance figure, the long-term slump in popularity for Nadeshiko Japan is cause for concern as the country prepares for the opening of the professional WE League in September.

Sunday's friendly between Japan and Panama drew just 4,036 fans to Tokyo's National Stadium. | KYODO
Sunday’s friendly between Japan and Panama drew just 4,036 fans to Tokyo’s National Stadium. | KYODO

“Traditionally, most Japanese sports fans like to support the heroes or heroines who have achieved results,” women’s soccer writer Kazuhiro Ishii told From the Spot. “It’s been 10 years since Nadeshiko stood on top of the world. The new generation has stepped forward and most of the stars of that time have left the team.

“If a new heroine doesn’t appear at the Tokyo Olympics, there will be a missing link in women’s soccer as we head into the WE League era.”

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