Defending World Cup Champions Japan have been flying just below the radar for most of this tournament, even while reaching the semifinals as the only team to have won all of its games.
How can that be? Well following that 2011 World Cup win and a silver medal one year later at the London Olympics, Japan had slipped down the FIFA Rankings, unreliable as they may be, in the last few years arriving in Canada as the world’s number four rated team.
Most of the pre-tournament hype was going to the top three teams, Germany, USA and France, with home nation Canada also earning plenty of ink, virtual and otherwise.
Even as Japan went on to win all five of its matches, the defenders haven’t necessarily excited. Three 1-0 wins and two victories by a 2-1 margin are hardly intimidating and for that reason England are in with a chance.
But there is virtue too in Japan’s low key approach. The ultimate team Japan has scored seven goals, while conceding only two. No Japanese player has scored more than once, not even midfielder and captain Aya Miyama. Miyama converted the game winning penalty in Japan’s 1-0 opening win over Switzerland, and has seamlessly accepted the mantle of team star from 36 year old legend Homare Sawa, who has accepted a cameo role with class.
For England this trip to the semifinals is a step into unchartered territory. In each of its three previous World Cup appearances the Three Lionesses have fallen in the quarterfinal round.
England opened its World Cup with a 1-0 loss to a very good France team and have won every game since, oddly enough by the same 2-1 margin. England beat quality sides in Norway and Canada, but Japan is a step up in class.
The question for Mark Sampson and his team is, can England handle that step at this World Cup? Sampson has a deep and talented squad, one that has shown character in coming back to defeat Norway, while also eliminating Canada in front huge home crowd.
Karen Carney and Jodie Taylor look to be in good form up top for England, Fara Williams leads a talented midfield and the defense is solid and may have a rising star in fullback Lucy Bronze, who has scored in consecutive matches.
Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley coughed up the rebound that led to Christine Sinclair’s goal for Canada, she can’t afford a similar lapse against Japan in what figures to be a tight match.
Neither of these teams have won a game by more than one goal so far in this World Cup, so extra time or even penalties are not out of the question. But this English team are fearless and will leave everything on the pitch, so I see them making it to Vancouver’s BC Place to take on the USA for the World Cup title on July 5.
Japan vs. England
Thursday, 2nd July at 00.00am
Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton