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Canada gets set to kick off Olympic campaign with opening day clash with Japan

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Bev Preistman’s side head into the Sapporo Dome Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m., ET to face off against the no.10 ranked Japan looking to kickstart their quest for gold.

Canada v United States: Final - 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Putting the talk about beds and if the Olympic Games will actually take place aside, it’s almost time for the Canadian Women’s National team to take the pitch. Targeting their third straight podium finish and to “change the colour of the medal” from bronze this campaign, Head Coach Bev Priestman’s side has plenty of skill and experience to make their mark heading into their first game in what will be a tricky group.

This Canada side come into this tournament on the back of a well earned 3-3 draw against the 2017 European Women’s Champions and 2019 Women’s World Cup runners-up Netherlands, showing improvement in their play in front of goal after two straight 0-0 draws against the Czech Republic and Brazil during their pre-tournament camp in Spain. Canada will be looking to lean on their experience and the depth in this tight-knit Canada squad as the games will come thick and fast once the tournament begins in the wee hours of Wednesday morning in this part of the world.

Priestman highlighted her belief in this squad ahead of her major tournament managerial debut, one that has been there and done that, and emphasized that they’re fully capable of not only repeating as medalists in these games, but of standing higher on the medalists podium than ever before and that they have the belief in themselves to push forward to do exactly that.

“We’re here to win; I think that’s what any competitive player wants, and we have world-class, high-performing players who want to win,” said Priestman. “They’ve been very clear they want to change the colour of the medal from bronze to gold. That’s ultimately what we want to achieve.”

First up on the schedule is Wednesday’s date with world no. 10 ranked Japan in Sapporo. The Japanese pose as tough an opening-day matchup as the Canadians could imagine, with the hosts coming into this match with a 7-4-3 all-time record against the Canadians, including a 4-0 victory in 2019, the heaviest defeat inflicted upon Canada’s Women in seven years. Japan was also able to get one over on the Canadians in their group play at the Olympic Games in 2012, a 2-1 victory, en route to claiming the silver medal. The two sides are quite familiar with one another, and this match could prove to be a real tactical battle.

Japan, considered by many to be podium favourites after years of international success, comes into this match having won their last five matches, including a 1-0 victory over Australia on July 14, with the lone goal coming through one of their stars, Mana Iwabuchi of Arsenal FC. Iwabuchi, 28, has recently inherited the no. 10 shirt for Japan from national team legend Homare Sawa, the captain of the 2011 World Cup winning and the 2012 Olympic winning Japanese squads, and the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, and has begun to carve out her own niche as a creative force in the side.

Leading this Japanese side as captain in this tournament will be Saki Kumagai of Bayern Munich. Kumagai, 30, a versitile player of almost unparalleled success and immense experience has won 25 professional trophies, including five Champions League titles as a part of the dominant Lyon side over the last 8 seasons, as well as the 2019 Asian Women’s Footballer of the Year award. The French based players in the Canadian side will be very familiar with her, Kadeisha Buchanan especially.

Japanese head coach Asako Takakura, who won 79 caps for the national side during her playing career, looks to be favouring a 4-4-2 formation heading into the tournament, a formation that Canada’s usual 4-3-3 formation will look to stretch and expose defensively. With Canada’s attack featuring skilled, quick wingers like Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose, and tricky forwards like Adriana Leon and Janine Beckie to support the likes of Christine Sinclair and Evelyne Viens, Canada will be looking to create and expose spaces in Japan’s backline using their attacking width and their strength in midfield and supporting play through the likes of Quinn, Ashley Lawrence, and Jessie Fleming.

Canada will of course be led by the legendary Christine Sinclair through this tournament, with football’s all-time leading international goal scorer set to make her 300th(!!) appearance for Canada against Japan. With many speculating that at 38 this may be Sinclair’s last Olympics, the legend spoke on how she still has plenty in the tank and how she still relishes the opportunity to pull on the red and white and compete for international honours.

“I still get up every day trying to get better, and for me when that leaves, that’s when I have to step away,” Sinclair said. “To be able to compete in these Olympics with this group is something special. Some of these teammates are my best friends, we’ve grown up on this team together; it’s a unique group. It’s very enjoyable, very competitive, and I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a chance to win, so it’s exciting.”

On top of the camaraderie and closeness she feels in the team, Sinclair believes in the depth of talented players this squad has. The ability to now draw from 22 players for the matchday 18-player squad allows Canada an advantage they’ve never had at an Olympic games before by being able to have a wider group of rested, high-end players to select from and the mercurial striker is excited by the opportunity that presents.

“We have 22 players that can make a difference on the pitch and I don’t think we’ve necessarily had that in the past,” Sinclair said. “All our players play in top leagues around the world and are ready to go. The depth is something that I’m very excited to see on this team, especially in a tournament like this where it’s a game every three days.”

Though they come into the tournament with a squad that will be envied by most of their competition, it will certainly be a tough task for Canada to repeat as medalists in this tournament. Their tricky group, COVID, and all of the additional factors facing every athlete and team at these games creates an atmosphere around the games that players may not have experienced before. Making no excuses on this front, Priestman is focused on the different challenges that these games will present to the squad.

“I think adapting to this particular Olympics, of the reality of what we’re living, which is the really stringent COVID protocols, which is very different to previous Olympics,” Priestman said. “That’s the major one in terms of fans, but I also think adapting to the heat, climate and a different opponent. I think you have to adapt quickly, grow quickly and go through the tournament.”

These Olympics will certainly be a challenge unlike any other these players have faced, but those challenges have created a level playing field for every side in competition here, especially considering that Japan will be without the advantage of having fans in the stands. Canada will look to use this lack of atmosphere for the hosts to their advantage and start their drive to the podium off with the strongest possible performance. Priestman certainly believes that they can weather any challenges and reach the top.

“For us, it’ll be how we approach the tournament; six games in 18 days, in difficult playing conditions. We’ve been talking about the depth, and using that well will stand us in good stead to do that. But I really believe on any given day, if we turn up and we’re ready, we can do that.”

So, set an alarm (or two), pre-prepare your coffee machine, and get set to potentially beat the sun out of bed to watch our Canadians strive for gold. This should be quite a match.

Kickoff is Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m., ET at the Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Japan and will be broadcast across CBC platforms.