x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A Japan win is 'not impossible'

The US have never lost to Japan in 25 meetings since 1986, but the Asian side have been compared to Barcelona.

FRANKFURT // As they prepare for tonight's final against the United States, Japan's performances at the women's World Cup have seen them compared to Barcelona, the Spanish and European champions.

Despite their flower-inspired nickname Nadeshiko, the Japanese are the giant-killers at Germany 2011 having shocked the hosts 1-0 in the quarter-finals and then dominated Sweden 3-1 in the semi-final.

Their previous best display at a World Cup was the quarter-finals at the 1995 tournament, and Japan will make history on Sunday night if they defeat the US, heavy favourites and two-time champions.

"It's definitely not impossible and it helped to win against Germany," said Norio Sasaki, the Japan coach. "It proved things like that are possible.

"It gave additional power to the team and it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win this and beat the No 1 team in the world."

Under their veteran captain Homare Sawa, Japan's all-action style, controlled passing, patient build-up and aggression in front of goal have carried them to the Frankfurt final despite losing 2-0 to England in the group stages.

The local media waxed lyrically about the Japanese, comparing them to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona.

April Heinrichs, the former US coach and a member of Fifa's technical-study group, said the comparisons were justified after watching the Japanese restrict Sweden to just four shots on goal in the semi-final.

"Every player is the master of the ball and good with both feet," Heinrichs said. "Every player is hard to read and is moving off the ball, ready to receive it and is very confident. They are playing for each other, it is the most inspiring Japanese team I have ever seen."

History is not on Japan's side, however. The US have never lost to Japan in 25 meetings since 1986 with 22 wins and three draws.

The Americans have already beaten Japan three times this year, once at the Algarve Cup in March and twice in pre-World Cup friendlies.

The US are also riding the crest of a wave after their memorable comeback against Brazil in the quarter-finals, equalising in the last minute before winning on penalties.

Being the No 1-seeded team, they are expected to win tonight. Pia Sundhage, the coach, said her task has been keeping her team relaxed.

Sundhage, who is not shy about singing to her players, blended Simon and Garfunkel's hit Feelin' Groovy into Friday's press conference as she told how she was keeping her squad calm ahead of the Frankfurt final.

"You know, this life is about competition," the 51-year-old Swede said. "There is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress.

"Of course, the players feel the same thing and while it's exciting, they have to do this, they have to do that.

"So I tell them, slow down you move too fast, you gotta make the morning last, kicking down the cobbled stones looking for fun and feelin' groovy."

With recent wins over Japan already under their belt and a significant height advantage over the opposition, Sundhage is upbeat.

"It gives us confidence; it means we are capable of winning against a technical team," she said.

"Now is a World Cup final, it means a little bit, but we need to bring out our best performance, we can't rely on what happened a few months ago."

The US exploits at Germany 2011 have been followed avidly back home. "When you talk like that, I get excited," she said after an American journalist told her of the prominent media coverage back in the States.

"We have created a bubble and I am in my soccer world right now. I am not aware of that, to be honest.

"Probably after the World Cup, I will read the papers and think, 'Wow, this is cool.' But for now I am just a soccer coach."