Japan quietly emerging as WWC contenders but real test of credentials lies ahead

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For former champions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, there was a distinct lack of hype surrounding Japan heading into this edition in Australia and New Zealand.

Nadeshiko were a conspicuous absentee in pre-tournament chatter on potential title contenders — largely just because they were a tricky team to gauge before a ball had even been kicked compared to others such as United States, Spain, Germany and England.

Two games into their campaign, signs are suggesting that the Japanese could yet belong in that bracket.

On Wednesday, Japan made it two wins from two in Group C as they cruised to a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica — courtesy of two goals in three first-half minutes from Hikaru Naomoto and Aoba Fujino — to back up their opening 5-0 rout of Zambia.

They could find themselves through to the round of 16 with a game to spare as soon as later in the day, should Spain beat the Zambians as expected to join them on six points and eliminate the other two from contention.

Even a draw in that game would be enough for the Japanese.

So just how have they managed to fly under the radar given the impressive start they have made?

Firstly, it must be recognised that Japan’s two victories so far were ties they were expected to win, even if there was a slight chance that Costa Rica might have been optimistic in their prospects of pulling off an upset.

Futoshi Ikeda’s charges are not all of a sudden title favourites just because they have picked up six points from their opening couple of outings, but the manner in which they did suggests they could be challengers.

At the very least, they should be a real chance to improve on their last-16 elimination from four years ago, although the luck of the draw will always be a factor.

That earlier-than-expected exit at the last World Cup was followed by a similarly disappointing semifinal elimination at last year’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup despite their status as two-time defending champions.

Two below-par finishes in major tournaments led to queries whether the Asian powerhouses might be on the decline.

Ikeda’s surprise omission of star attacker Mana IwabuchiNadeshiko‘s 6th-highest scorer of all time — from his 23-player squad raised a few more doubts.

Still, Japan have responded in emphatic fashion.

If their opening-day dismantling of Zambia was a tantalising display of what they are capable of when in full flow — with four of their five goals coming after halftime when they had shaken off some rust — Wednesday’s win was a professional display that was typically Japanese.

A left-footed piledriver by Naomoto in the bottom corner in the 25th minute followed by Fujino’s fierce finish at the near post after a delightful run down the right — and the result was done and dusted.

They did come close to adding to their score against the Costa Ricans in the second half but the priority was always to play out the remainder of the contest now they were firmly in control of proceedings.

Japan never had any problems doing just that.

With the benefit of hindsight, Ikeda’s decision to leave out Iwabuchi now seems to be the right one as he looks to boast a plethora of options in a sign of his squad depth.

After Hinata Miyazawa had scored twice against Zambia, Ikeda had the luxury of leaving her out of Wednesday’s starting XI with Naomoto — her direct replacement — making an impact.

Hina Sugita, another of the four changes Japan made to the team they sent out in their opening game, was an industrious contributor down the left, while Manchester City midfielder Yui Hasegawa controlled proceedings in the engine room even as her Liverpool counterpart Fuka Nagano sat out most of the contest against Costa Rica before coming on for the final 15 minutes.

Mina Tanaka — Japan’s likeliest avenue to goal in the absence of Iwabuchi — has looked energetic and dangerous as the spearhead in attack, and is not even fully firing on all cylinders yet with just one goal against the Zambians to her name so far.

The impressive displays so far and the quality the possess hint that Nadeshiko have the potential to go deep into the tournament.

But more difficult assignments lie ahead, starting as soon as Monday’s Group C finale against the Spanish — a tie that will likely decide top spot depending on how the latter fare against Zambia on Wednesday evening.

Ranked 6th in the world and boasting a stellar cast, Spain are one of the teams that many did raise as possible champions even before play got underway.

How Japan are against Spain will give a clearer indication as to where they truly rank among the hopefuls.

It will be the toughest test of their credentials yet and they might even be handed a reality check.

Should the Japanese pass that test, however, it would then be almost impossible not to include them in the list of potential champions of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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