Japan 2-1 Scotland: Scots left feeling blue
(Credit: gettyimages | Martin Rose)

Japan bounced back from their opening day disappointment to claim three points against Scotland in Group D at the FIFA Women's World Cup and inject new life into their hopes of qualification.

Scotland were left feeling like "what might've been" after their narrow defeat to England on Sunday. A poor first half performance did the damage in Nice but their second-half display in which they scored their first-ever World Cup goal was encouraging despite ultimately falling short.

The second match of the group against the 2011 World champions and 2015 runners-up was a daunting prospect but the squad and manager Shelley Kerr headed into the match at Roazhon Park determined to play their way from the first whistle and not allow the question to be asked again if they had done enough on the night.

Story of the match

This was never going to be easy for Scotland. Japan are much-changed from the side that were well-beaten in the 2015 final by the USA with only two players from that night in Vancouver in the starting eleven 1440 days later in Brittany but still possess quality and a conveyor belt of talent that always has them positioned as a force when competing for football's greatest prize.

Scotland though, had every reason to believe they could trouble their opposition who had been kept out by an Argentina side ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings. Shelley Kerr made three changes for this one with Sophie Howard, Nicola Docherty and more surprisingly, the goalscorer vs. England, Claire Emslie all relegated to the bench in favour of Kirsty Smith, Hayley Lauder and Lizzy Arnott respectively.

Japan coach Asako Takemoko also made three changes with one in each area of the field. Nana Ichise, an U17 World Cup winner in 2014, came in for Moeka Minami, Jun Endo replaced Yui Hasegawa while Mama Iwabuchi, a veteran on this stage despite only being 26, played in favour of Kumi Yokoyama and these alterations seemed to give Japan the energy and creative edge that lacked in the capital on Monday.

Both sides traded chances in the first ten minutes with Iwabuchi cutting a ball across the face for Emi Nakajima, who quickly established herself as one of the main dangers, to volley just wide while Jane Ross provided the assist for Lauder but her effort lacked the same threat and was easy for Ayaka Yamashita in the Japanese goal.

Scotland were not playing particularly badly in the first portion and saw plenty of the ball but their lack of urgency in possession in midfield, which often saw them send it back to goalkeeper Lee Alexander was slightly unsettling after their tepid first-half performance in their previous match. 

Japan punished the Scots soon after for their lackadaisical start with Endo receiving the ball from a defensive clearance and finding the cutback for Iwabuchi to power the ball beyond Alexander. The replay will make hard viewing for Kerr and her team as too many players were drawn to Endo leaving Iwabuchi in far too space to find the opening goal.

Japan hadn't lost any of their last ten World Cup matches when taking the lead which made it imperative that the opening goal would wake Scotland up. It didn't. Instead, Japan continued in control forcing a goal-line clearance from Kim Little before being awarded the chance to double their lead from the spot with ten minutes to play until the break.

The captain Rachel Corsie was at fault as a hand on the shoulder of Yuika Sugasawa was enough to send the two-time Asian Cup winner tumbling to the ground. It was, perhaps, a soft decision by Ethiopian referee Ledya Tafesse but Corsie gave her a decision to make. Sugasawa soon dusted herself down to convert the spot kick, grab her 19th international goal and further Japan's lead.

The first half had quickly become a damage limitation exercise for the Scots but they were almost three-nil down on the cusp of half-time with Hina Sugita smashing a shot from close range off of the crossbar.

A slow second half was awoken from its slumber just before the hour with Nakajima forcing a good save from Alexander after an effort from range.

Scotland woke up soon after this too with the introduction of Emslie and the newly-signed Orlando Pride player immediately began to show why she shouldn't have been dropped as the team displayed more willingness and energy with Emslie and the tireless Erin Cuthbert both striving to drag their team back into the game.

Despite their renewed efforts, Japan still maintained control as Scotland struggled to create until the final fifteen minutes. An excellent run by Emslie down the wing, eventually winning a corner she had no right to win allowed a corner and headed from Jennifer Beattie that she should've done better with and just a few moments later, Cuthbert struck the post from a tight angle.

VAR hasn't been on Scotland's side so far in this tournament. A controversial decision in the match against England went against them and two penalty calls were dismissed in this one too. Erin Cuthbert was left limping for several minutes after the first challenge in the box and she was further incensed soon after with a handball in the box unpunished.

A small reward finally came Scotland's way in the eighty-eighth minute as ACF Fiorentina's Lana Clelland, a substitute, capitalized on a rare defensive error to fire the ball high beyond the keeper and into the net. It sparked hope that Scotland could steal an unlikely point but with only two minutes added on and Japan happy to keep the ball in the corner, the Scots ran out of time and were left thinking what might've been once more.


Frustrating Scotland

After two games at their maiden FIFA World Cup, one word can be used to describe the performances of the side: frustrating. Scotland simply haven't done themselves justice this far in the tournament and have let themselves down in the first half of both of their matches so far which has ultimately prevented them from picking up any points heading into the final match against Argentina.

There is the feeling that if Scotland had performed with the same confidence and ability they were able to show in the second half against England and the final twenty minutes against Japan, they would be in a much healthier position than they are now. It is important to leave these tournaments, at whatever stage, without regrets but it seems Scotland would have a lot of those right now.

Question marks remain too about the tactics of Shelley Kerr. Her team seemed to show far too much respect to their opponents and those tactics also blunted any threat from Kim Little. Many believed the physicality in the Scottish team would be a benefit but their inability to get in Japanese's faces quickly negated that attribute. 

The decision to bench Claire Emslie was head-scratching for some too. She drives Scotland forward, links up very well with Erin Cuthbert and scored the goal in the opening match.

Japan on course...

Japan needed to bounce back in a big way after their 0-0 draw with Argentina to kick off Group D. With their accomplishments, big things are always expected of the Japanese and they faltered badly in Paris, struggling to break down an opponent that they were widely fancied to beat. Thankfully for their supporters, they bounced back and have almost secured their place in the next round as a result.

Everything that Japan had done wrong against Argentina seemed to be rectified in Match 2. Granted, their opponents did not sit in quite as much as the Argentines but the creativity was back and they played more like a team considered one of the possible winners of the trophy on July 7. 

A win for England over Argentina in Friday's evening game will be enough to all but secure qualification barring an unlikely set of results in the final two group matches.

Standout players

Emi Nakajima and Jun Endo both had good games and caused the Scottish defence no end of problems. Mana Iwabuchi is the top scoring striker in the side and opened the scoring after a simple assist from Endo. Sugasawa was cool from the spot to double the lead.

Defensively, Japan were very sound too. They marshalled Scotland well and until the final twenty minutes, they really came under little pressure. Nana Ichise will be disappointed with her giveaway for the consolation goal that blotted the copybook.

As for Scotland, Erin Cuthbert and Claire Emslie continued to show why they are two of the best players in the team. Their link-up play was good and in tight situations, more often than not, they managed to dig something tangible out for Scotland. It again asks more questions as to why Emslie didn't start this match. Lana Clelland also deserves a mention for her awareness to capitalize on the mistake near the end.

Two down and one to go then for Scotland and zero points to show for it. This tournament has not yet been kind and they will be hoping their journey in this tournament doesn't end in Paris next Wednesday.  

With four of the six best fourth-placed teams qualifying, there is still hope but Scotland absolutely MUST win against Argentina in the romance capital of the world. There was nothing romantic in Rennes as Nadeshiko put Scotland to the sword and left them clinging to a World Cup dream but the Scots will be hoping for a storybook ending and a historic Round of 16 place, something that no Scotland side has ever done before.