On Wednesday night, there was heartbreak for England in Edmonton but scenes of absolute joy for Japan. The Nadeshiko, with their last-gasp 2-1 victory, sealed their place in Sunday’s final of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where they will meet the USA in Vancouver.
They have spent a lot of time in the city on the western coast, winning three games at BC Place Stadium, and now they are one game away from winning their second consecutive World Cup final.
What is most impressive about Japan’s road back to Vancouver is that they stand on the verge of World Cup success and haven't even played their best football yet.
Norio Sasaki’s well-organised team did the bare minimum to pass through the group stage with a 3-0 record. Switzerland gave them a battle in the opening game, with Japan winning through a slightly controversial penalty.
Cameroon took their second game all the way, bringing the game back to 2-1 late in the second half and then watching Gaelle Enganamouit’s injury-time header sneak past the back post.
With six points in the bank, Japan did enough to beat Ecuador 1-0—the South Americans had conceded 16 goals in their first two games. However, nine points is still nine points, and Sasaki’s side topped the group.
For 45 minutes against the Netherlands, Japan played the type of football that we became accustomed to four years ago, but apart from brief glimpses, especially against England, they have been far from impressive.
Speaking to FIFA.com after Wednesday’s match, Sasaki said:
England were more mobile than I was expecting, and we struggled to cause them problems. We didn’t play as well as I’d hoped, but when you qualify, it means you’ve achieved your objective.
As for the own goal, I feel sorry for the player, but Yuki Ogimi was right behind her ready to pounce, so I don’t think it would have made a difference either way. We still created the goal-scoring opportunity ourselves – for me, it’s more a goal made by Nahomi Kawasumi and Ogimi than an own goal.
In the dressing room, Kozue Ando told the players over the phone that she would be at the Final in Vancouver to support them. I think that provided them with the motivation to qualify.
On Sunday night, if Japan want to lift the trophy for a second time, they will need to raise their game against the United States. Jill Ellis’ team have been far from perfect themselves, but in their last two knockout games, they have raised the bar and looked much more threatening against China and Germany.
The Americans got lucky in the semi-final—a penalty against them should have resulted in a red card for Julie Johnston, and Alex Morgan’s penalty looked to come from contact outside of the box—but they took their chances and are growing in confidence with every game.
They're peaking just in time for Sunday’s final.
America are as physically strong as England, perhaps stronger, and they are technically better in the final third. Ellis will likely stick with the central-midfield trio of Morgan Brian, Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd, which was successful against Germany, trying to outnumber Japan in the middle of the park.
Four years ago, Japan came from behind to level the World Cup final, beating the U.S. on penalties. Despite winning the Olympic final in 2012, the Red, White and Blue want revenge. Winning a gold medal is a great achievement, but the World Cup is still the pinnacle of the sport.
USA will start as favourites. Japan need to improve massively, but if there is one team that could once again surprise everyone and upset the odds, it is the Nadeshiko.