Japan all business ahead of semi vs. England


Japan's Saki Kumagai, right, and Ayumi Kaihori celebrate their victory over Australia in the quarterfinals. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

EDMONTON—The Japanese women’s team of 2015 can be compared to the Spanish men’s team of 2010.

Like the Spain side that won the 2010 World Cup, this Japan squad wins one-goal games that feel like routs. Japan scores just enough goals to win but, because it holds the ball for so much of the game, to those watching, the contest just doesn’t feel that close. Even though the opposition is only a goal down, you feel like you are watching a predator choking the life out of its quarry, not an evenly matched battle between two teams.

Japan also boasts the most balanced roster at this Women’s World Cup. The Japanese don’t have a player on their roster who has scored more than one goal in this tournament. They have used each and every one of the 23 players on their roster.

There is a sense of quiet confidence, of calmness, about Japan. Well, maybe coach Norio Sasaki isn’t quite as low-key as his players. Going into Wednesday’s semifinal against England at Commonwealth Stadium, he predicted that it would be business as usual for the reigning World Cup holders.

“We will definitely go back to Vancouver. I believe that,” Sasaki said through a translator.

Let’s not get into all of this “wow, he predicted his team will win” hooey that fills many sports pages. (After all, why is it a big deal when a player or coach is confident his team will win? Isn’t that what they’re paid to do?)

But, if there is a reason to feel that Sasaki’s bravado is overstated, it’s because Japan’s last loss at a Women’s World Cup came at the hands of the English—in 2011, in the group stage. But, you certainly don’t get a sense from the Japanese that history could repeat itself.

“I don’t feel like we are going to lose at this World Cup,” Sasaki said. “But, England is also improving and we are also improving.

“In the last World Cup, we lost to the English, since then, we have been winning all our other games… I really don’t want to lose. My motivation is very high.”

What Sasaki said might be read as arrogant. But, consider the source. It comes from the coach of the reigning champs, a team that hasn’t lost at a World Cup since what was essentially a throwaway game against England to wrap up the 2011 group stage—the Japanese had already clinched their place in the knockout phase before that match. When a guarantee comes from arguably the best coach in women’s football, it comes off as an unquestionable truth. It feels about as cocky as if Sasaki had told the media hordes that water was, well, wet.

So, when he suggested that making it to the semifinal may not be that big of a deal for the Japanese, well, it’s just didn’t feel like that big of a deal.

“Many of my players have experienced the semifinal before. They are calm,” Sasaki said.

And, the Japanese feel that, in 2015, they are better than in 2011, when they won it all. Striker Shinobu Ohno said the players are more settled now.

“Personally, I feel more comfortable here. Each player seems to know their responsibility better this time,” Ohno offered.

The Japanese were cool and collected. But, so were the English. Coach Mark Sampson also spoke about how calm his team is. And he didn’t come back with bravado when he heard about what Sasaki had said. The way both teams spoke about how calm they were, maybe the semifinal will start with a meditation circle.

“I think we’re going to see a game of contrasting styles,” Sampson predicted. “I wouldn’t argue the fact that in potentially tight spaces Japan has a way of moving the ball that potentially cause lots of teams problems. But, there’s a lot of weapons that England are chuffing away (on Wednesday) which they’re going to have to stand up to.

“So, okay, we have to appreciate and respect the quality they have technically, but we’ve also got some half-decent players technically ourselves.”

He should also have goalkeeper Karen Bardsley ready for selection. The English No. 1 had to leave in the second half of the quarterfinal victory over Canada because her eye had nearly swollen shut. But, the mystery ailment is gone, and Sampson said the player is ready to play.

England veteran midfielder Jill Scott, who will claim her 96th cap on Wednesday, hopes the memory of the 2011 win over Japan can rally the Lionesses.

“It seems a lifetime ago, now, but we put in a great performance in that game. Japan had a lot of possession of the ball but we kept our shape very well and, if I remember right, we hit them on the counterattack twice through Ellen White and Rachel Yankey. And, I think we were the only team in that tournament to beat Japan,” Scott recalled.

“We can definitely take confidence going into that but, at the same time, they’re world champions and we have to respect that, and we will do. But, as you say, we have beaten them before, so why not again?”

If Scott’s prediction is right, Sasaki may have some uncomfortable conversations with his son-in-law, who is English.

“We have a fight in our family,” Sasaki joked.

It’s a fight that he’s pretty sure he’s going to win.

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