Now that the Group Stage of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup has ended, it's time to review the performances of teams across the tournament. Today, we look at Japan, the 2011 World Cup champions and winners of Group C.
Four years after winning the World Cup final against the United States on penalties, Japan have picked up right where they left off. They weren't favored to win the 2011 tournament, which came about four months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, but they still would never quit. And that's how the Japanese play: gritty, grinding, tough. They don't give up, and that was the case in their three Group C matches.
What also makes Japan so dangerous is their depth; they had four goals scored by four different players in Group Play. Every match, the Japanese played as a team, stopping opposition attackers in their tracks, and they only allowed one goal in the Group Stage.
Even though they have a plethora of talent, Japan have nonetheless been led by their top players such as Yūki Ōgimi, captain Aya Miyama, and Aya Sameshima. Japan are pretty small in size, but when they're top players perform at a high level, they play as well as anybody. Additionally, while Japan lack the athleticism of a team like the United States, they are the most technical team in the tournament.
With speed, energy, and a stingy defense, Japan proved a tough matchup for every team in their suprisingly solid group. Group C held three World Cup debutants: Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador. Japan beat each of those teams by one goal, but besides a surplus of late Ramona Bachmann chances in their game against the Swiss, Japan seemed to win their matches quite handily, dominating on defense and in the midfield.
This is a Japan team that has certain similarities to the 2011 team. Most people are paying more attention to high power teams like the United States, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, and France, and Japan have once again sunk back into the realm of mystery, where no one's quite sure what to expect from them. Even so, Japan have quietly proven that they can play against anyone, because they keep games close.
Japan face off against the Netherlands in the Round of 16 in Ottawa on June 22nd. The Netherlands are another World Cup debutant, and have been nothing but impressive so far in this tournament, finishing in 3rd place in Group A with four points. Like most of their opponents, Japan will be smaller than the Dutch, but their grit, speed, and passing might be too much for the girls in orange to handle.
It should be interesting to see how the defending champs fare in the Knockout Stages. If Japan were to beat the Netherlands, they would face either Brazil or Australia, two solid, talented teams, in the Quarterfinals. Their doesn't appear to be a team in Japan's half of the bracket who is a complete mismatch for them, though. Brazil could make them sweat with their speed and skill, and Brazil star Marta could do just what Ramona Bachmann did against Japan; get off shot after shot with no sign of slowing down. Norway could also make noise thanks to their size, physicality, and the skill of forwards Ada Hegerberg and Isabell Herlovsen, who have been fantastic in the World Cup thus far. A possible semifinal matchup with hosts Canada could also be a phenomenal game, and the Canadians' toughness and team play could certainly give Japan a scare.
It might be safe to lock Japan into the Quarterfinals, but just like the team itself, it's a bit of a mystery how far they'll go in the tournament. Japan definitely have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they might have to step it up if they want to do so. It's going to be quite a ride, and it'll be fun to see Japan face off in elimination games against some great teams.
PREDICTION: Japan reach Semifinals, but lose to Norway