Sweden vs Japan Preview: Stern test for Pia Sundhage's Olympics-bound team

Blågult are preparing themselves for Rio in some fashion as they take on the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup winners.

Sweden vs Japan Preview: Stern test for Pia Sundhage's Olympics-bound team
Ayumi Kaihori of Japan and Marie Hammarstrom of Sweden battle it out in the last competitive meeting between these two, at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Photo: Francis Bompard/Getty Images)

Two weeks today, Sweden will kick off their 2016 Summer Olympics campaign in Rio by taking on South Africa, and what better way to prepare for the tournament than by facing the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup winners?

Japan, now under Asako Takakura's charge, also finished as runners-up at last year's World Cup and will be a stern test for Pia Sundhage's side ahead of a tough group this summer.

Sweden will face hosts Brazil and China, who denied Japan a berth in Rio, as well as South Africa and will need to be at their best to qualify for the quarter-finals of the competition.

Japan will provide the perfect warm-up then, with them undergoing something of a transition period under Takakura but still boasting countless world-class talents in their ranks.

New coach, new era

After the disappointment of not qualifying for this summer's games, Takakura was announced as Japan's first female manager and has not been afraid to make big calls in naming her squad for this friendly either.

A half-fit Aya Miyama would walk into the starting line-up of most of the world's best teams, but the 48-year-old coach has chosen to leave the creative midfielder out of this squad, telling the press that she is "still not right condition-wise."

The three-time Asian Player of the Year also missed a double-header with the United States due to her fitness last month, and now the captain's armband will be donned by someone else again tomorrow.

One person not in contention to wear it is Mana Iwabuchi, who has also been left behind due to commitments with her club, Bayern Munich.

Last month, Yuki Nagasato and Rumi Utsugi sported it in Miyama's absence respectively, with Takakura clearly happy to weigh up her other options instead of attaching a 'vice-captain' role to someone this early into her tenure.

The manager will get two opportunities to trial potential candidates too, with a friendly against Swedish Damallsvenskan club Kristianstads DFF also to be played while they are in the country - that in three days' time.

Speaking about her side's activity in this period despite them not having the Olympics to look forward to, Takakura told the press: "We cannot sit here and do nothing while the other teams are gearing up for the Olympics."

It's clear she wants to take every opportunity to build this new Japanese side up, and she is not afraid to start them off against some of the world's best: "We will do everything we can to beat Sweden right before their Olympic campaign starts.”

(Photo: Jason Miller/Getty)
Japan are entering a new era with Asako Takakura at the helm. (Photo: Jason Miller/Getty)

Japan squad in full

Goalkeepers: Erina Yamane (JEF United Chiba Ladies), Ayaka Yamashita (NTV Beleza), Chika Hirao (Urawa Reds Ladies).

Defenders: Saori Ariyoshi (NTV Beleza), Yuri Kawamura (Vegalta Sendai Ladies), Saki Kumagai (Olympique Lyonnais), Mayu Sasaki (Vegalta Sendai Ladies), Hikari Takagi (Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara), Tomoko Muramatsu (NTV Beleza).

Midfielders: Mizuho Sakaguchi (NTV Beleza), Rumi Utsugi (Seattle Rein), Emi Nakajima (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Shino Kunisawa (Nagano Parceiro Ladies), Sonoko Chiba (AS Harima Albion), Mai Kyokawa (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Yu Nakasato (NTV Beleza), Rika Masuya (INAC Kobe Leonessa).

Forwards: Yuki Nagasato (1.FFC Frankfurt), Saori Arimachi (Vegalta Sendai Ladies), Kumi Yokoyama (Nagano Parceiro Ladies), Mina Tanaka (NTV Beleza).

Perfect chance for Sweden to prepare

Of all the teams who haven't qualified for the Olympics that Sweden could have faced in preparation for the games, Japan are perhaps the best of the lot.

It should be a terrific test for Sundhage and her team then, with her telling the press: "What a great chance for us to play against a nation that has been in three straight championship finals," with her adding that she is also intrigued to see how her opposition perform after Takakura's appointment.

While Japan are missing a couple of key players, Sweden are boosted by the return of Lotta Schelin to domestic action. The forward made her FC Rosengård debut at the weekend and scored a 90th minute equaliser for her new side to cap off the performance.

Kosovare Asllani is also back in the national team set-up despite a history of conflict between the two parties. Asllani is enjoying a terrific season in England so far with Manchester City and has been key to the form that sees them sit top of the pile in WSL 1.

Sundhage is focused on the squad as a whole this week though and not star individuals, saying she wants "as many people as possible" to play tomorrow ahead of the Olympics.

"We have hit hard during the week and I want us to do it even against Japan," she told the media.

"We face a team that plays a nice technical football with a high tempo," Sundhage added, with her "really looking forward to the match" as a result of all the talent that will be on show, making for an exciting fixture.

Sweden have already named their starting line-up for tomorrow's game too, though we can expect plenty of changes throughout the 90 minutes.

Lotta Schelin enjoyed an eventful return to domestic action, scoring on her FC Rosengård debut at the weekend. (Photo: SVTSport)
Lotta Schelin enjoyed an eventful return to domestic action, scoring on her FC Rosengård debut at the weekend. (Photo: SVTSport)

Sweden squad in full

Sweden starting XI: Hedvig Lindahl; Jessica Samuelsson, Nilla Fischer, Linda Sembrant, Jonna Andersson; Caroline Seger, Lisa Dahlkvist, Elin Rubensson; Sofia Jakobsson, Fridolina Rolfö, Stina Black Stenius.

Rest of the squad: Hilda Carlen, Emma Berglund, Magdalena Ericsson, Lotta Schelin, Kosovare Asllani, Hanne Grahn, Amanda Ilestedt, Pauline Hammarlund, Emilia Appelqvist, Emelie Lundberg, Oliva Schough.

A history of nothing between them

Over the years, these two powerhouses of women's football have met 12 times and there has been little between them on most occasions.

Sweden have won five of these games to Japan's three, with the other four - and the most recent meeting - resulting in a draw. Their latest encounter was almost four years ago, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and ended goalless.

Japan did beat Blågult en route to their World Cup triumph in 2011, winning 3-1 in the last four, and enjoyed a narrow 1-0 win over the Scandinavian nation in the 2004 Summers Olympics in Athens.

Sweden's last competitive win over the Asian side came all the way back in 1995, with them 2-0 victors in a World Cup group game. 

Their one remaining encounter of a competitive nature came in the 1991 World Cup and is a much less representative result today, with Sweden 8-0 winners in a time well before Japan's title-winning days.

However, tomorrow the European nation will be the favourites again, with them preparing for an Olympics Games while their opponents undergo a transition period after a whirlwind 12 months.