Ah Japan! The land of the rising sun, the birthplace of sushi as we know it and...oh yeah, the third-ranked defending Women's World Cup champions. And the Canadian ladies have them up first. Joy!
The third ranked Japanese shocked the world and healed a nation shattered by the March 11th Fukushima earthquake by winning the World Cup last year, becoming the first Asian team to win a senior level FIFA World Cup...ever. Seriously, that's no mean feat, considering they were matched against the brutal steamroller defence known as the USA. But somehow, they came away with the win.
However, things haven't come up all sakura blossoms for the Nadeshiko Japan since that World Cup win -- they lost the recent Algarve Cup final to Germany (who aren't playing in London -- shocker!), and in the latest World Cup final rematch against the US team, the Japanese fell 4-1. Some may blame poor treatment of the team (heading to London, the men's U-23 team was allowed to travel in Business Class while the World Champion women traveled coach...wow, way to go Japan!)
But when it counts, the Nadeshiko have stood tall, blazing through the Asian Olympic qualifiers (which included the North Koreans, the Chinese, the South Koreans and the Australians; none of them pushovers by any stretch). So what makes them so deadly? Look no further than the European men's champions, Spain: highly skilled and nimble players, almost like buttered geishas...or Andres Ineista (take your pick, but only one of those dives and you know who it is.).
Wonder why the Americans had such a hard time breaking them down? Because of the smoothness of the passing, like soft tofu
floating in dashi (oh wait, that's miso soup...) lightly drizzled with sesame oil and ponzu (wait, that's hiyayakko, or cold tofu) -- silky, and just beautiful stuff, and not flavourless at all. It's fast to create, and can strike back with a flavour that can catch you napping -- the Canadians will want to not get caught ball-watching.
At the heart of it all is the defence, led by 21-year old Saki Kumagai, who plies her trade in Germany in the women's Bundesliga. She's part of a defensive corps that share 244 caps between them, an experienced group that will pose a formidable wall for the Canadian forwards to climb to find a way to goal.
And if you think Kumagai and the defence is the end of it? No siree Bob...the midfield is where the heart of the Japanese danger lies, with who I would consider Japan's version of Christine Sinclair: Homare Sawa. She's the elder statesman of the team, having garnered the most caps out of the entire squad -- and the most goals. Along with her, the captain Aya Miyama, they are the dynamic duo of the Japanese midfield, with a combined 107 goals between them.
The forwards are a less well known bunch, but no less dangerous -- this group are led by Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Ogimi (nee Nagasato), but here is where the goals do not originate: both Ohno and Ogimi each scored just 1 goal during the World Cup. But despite that, they can strike with the accuracy of a samurai swiping a fly with a katana (they share 74 goals between them): something that the Canadian backline could be overwhelmed with, watching both the strikers and the attacking midfield, and not really knowing where that strike will come from -- sort of like ninja assassins.
So what are the keys to victory? Neutralizing the threat from Sawa and Miyama is probably the most important, which means starving them of possession by denying passing and shooting lanes in the midfield and in the back; meanwhile the Canadians forwards will have to find a secret passage in the Japanese castle to storm the goal. Will it be a difficult task? Yes. Is it not doable? No. The Americans almost had it right a year ago; let's see if we have what it takes to finish the job.