Why Japan is a different challenge than USWNT for Sweden

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — You don’t just come down from the emotional high of winning a back-and-forth up-and-down penalty shootout — certainly not when you win the shootout by a mere millimeter. Sweden forward Lina Hurtig‘s game-deciding kick, which initially looked like it was saved, literally could not have been any closer — goal-line technology ruled it had crossed the line by the thinnest of possible margins.

“That night I couldn’t sleep very well,” Hurtig told ESPN recently. “There were a lot of emotions.”

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Fresh off a win over the United States after holding the No. 1-ranked Americans to a 0-0 draw during regulation and extra time, Sweden has had to take some time before shifting the focus immediately to Japan waiting in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal.

“It’s been two crazy days. Today, some of us just stayed at the hotel and did some recovery,” Hurtig added on Tuesday. “Some went here to play some football. It’s very individual — whatever you feel like you need to do.”

That’s the unique challenge of the World Cup: the stakes are so high, but there’s not much time to pause and reflect… it’s just onto the next one. The next one, though, will be a doozy. Japan, the team waiting in the quarterfinals, has been the best team so far in this World Cup, both by the eye test and pure stats. Japan has scored 14 goals in four games (the most in the tournament) and conceded only once (tied for least in the tournament).

When a reporter asked a question prefaced by noting that Japan is good off the ball, Hurtig cocked her head to the side and interjected: “I think they’re quite comfortable on the ball as well.”

Therein lies the challenge for Sweden. While the United States did switch things up — Sweden assistant coach Magnus Wikman said the switch to a double pivot meant the U.S. built more in the midfield, which Sweden had to adapt to — it was only a minor wrinkle. From one game to the next, Japan is capable of something drastically different.

Consider Japan holding a mere 24% possession in their 4-0 win over Spain in the group stage, but 60% possession in their 3-1 win over Norway in the round of 16. Japan is a team that can play in a variety of ways, while Sweden is a team that so far has only shown that it likes to press and be physical to win the ball, and then play direct or rely on set pieces to score goals. Sweden fully expects to see the Japan team that faced Norway, and plans to use physicality to stop the in-sync Japan in a clash of styles. After all, Sweden has committed more fouls than any team at the World Cup, while Japan is among the lowest in fouls committed.

“We have to try to get a lot of duels, come physical against them, but we also have to accept that they are going to control the ball and pass the ball, so we have to run longer before we win the ball,” said Wikman. “We have to accept these things because they are so good, but we have to use our skills to get physical into their bodies and get counterattacks against them.”

It’s not going to be an easy quarterfinal, but this also hasn’t been the easiest road for the Swedish team at this Women’s World Cup. The No. 3-ranked Swedes opened their group stage going down against South Africa, a team ranked 51 spots below Sweden in FIFA’s world rankings. But they came back, eventually winning 2-1.

That scare started to feel like a distant memory as Sweden rolled through the rest of the group stage, topping their group, until the round of 16. The Americans had dominated the game, out-shooting Sweden 22 to 11, holding the lion’s share of the possession, and limiting Sweden — a team that likes to score on set pieces — to three corner kicks.

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Japan captain relishing ‘dream stage’ of World Cup quarterfinal

Japan captain Saki Kumagai and Moeka Minami speak ahead of Japan’s World Cup quarterfinal against Sweden.

Sweden perhaps got a bit lucky against the U.S. — three U.S. players missed their chances to win it in the penalty shootout — but the adversity could be what the Swedish players need to forge ahead.

“Of course, you always want to win the game — you don’t want to go to penalties — but it feels nice we can win in different ways,” midfielder Hanna Bennison told ESPN. “It gives confidence to us.”

Sweden has been on this not-so-easy road since the Euros last summer. They came into that tournament having won silver at the Tokyo Olympics — Sweden had arguably the best team in Tokyo. But after topping their group last summer, they again found it difficult in the knockout stages, first barely getting past Belgium and then suffering a 4-0 humiliation from England.

After repeatedly almost coming close but falling short, the players insist they believe it can be different this time around. Shootouts won by millimeters and past tournaments aren’t going to weigh on them when the whistle blows against Japan.

“Everyone is really strong mentally,” Bennison said. “We worked on it a lot with our psychologist — that has helped us a lot as a group.”

Of course, the possibility of another penalty shootout looms — the ultimate mental stress test. If it comes down to spot kicks again, though, Japan players feel they have the upper hand.

“Watching the USA-Sweden match, I thought that we definitely have a chance to win,” Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita said recently according to a translation from Stats Perform. “If we believe in what we’ve done so far, I think we’ll be fine.” Yamashita called it “helpful for Japan to get some information” from Sweden’s shootout with the United States. She added: “I think it gives us an advantage in terms of mentality.”

Japan coach Futoshi Ikeda said on Thursday through an interpreter that the players have practiced penalties, but Wikman, the Sweden assistant coach, said there’s no way to recreate the circumstances of a penalty shootout with the World Cup on the line.

Sweden have practiced the technical aspects of shooting the ball, but even if you do practice, he said, the goalkeepers on the team know where their teammates like to shoot — the psychological chess match is removed during such drills. The team’s sports psychologist have worked with them on how they should react during a shootout, and now the players have seen it in action.

“It’s important to practice the right mood — what will you do when you go to the spot with the ball for a penalty and the people screaming?” Wikman said. “Can you concentrate and be focused? That’s what’s most important.”

In that sense, having one shootout under their belts could make the difference for Sweden’s players. They lost at least a night’s sleep over their last shootout, but now they know they can do it.

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