Peaking At Perfect Time: Japan Tops Australia To Return To Semifinals

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Japan didn't look all that good.

This was back at the beginning of the month, way out there in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the defending World Cup champions were opening the tournament against Switzerland, then Cameroon, then Ecuador, and somehow they looked like they were just a little past their prime.

Japan's brilliant possession style, always so technical and smooth, somehow seemed too slow. The team barely squeaked past Switzerland in group play, then could only manage a 1-0 win over Ecuador -- a squad other teams tagged with as many goals as they wanted. Even FiveThirtyEight's statistical analysis at the beginning of this World Cup gave Japan just a 10 percent chance of winning the whole thing, behind Germany and the United States.

Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports

Japan dominated possession and completed 299 passes in the first half, third-most by any team so far in this World Cup.

Now that number is at 17 percent and creeping higher. Also getting steadily better is Japan's quality of play. "The tempo, the speed of our play has improved a great deal throughout the tournament," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said. "Our players have fought many teams and players who were at this World Cup for the first time, which gives our players a lot of pressure because we're supposed to beat them. That fact, plus also we're defending champions. We have overcome, and even with one-goal differences, that reflects our ability to win."

On Saturday afternoon, Japan won again. This was the most important win to date: a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Australia, a game in which Japan dominated possession, passes and chances, then finally converted in the 87th minute to abruptly end a match that seemed destined for extra time.

"Even though they scored off a set piece on a scrappy sort of goal, they were probably better than us in most aspects of the game," Australia coach Alen Stajcic said. "I thought the better team won. I thought Japan had much better technical skill."

It did. It does. And that technical skill is probably better than that possessed by any other squad left in this tournament.

Japan is undefeated (5-0) here in Canada. On the flip side, the team has yet to win by more than one goal; they've won 1-0 three times and 2-1 twice. Japan has seven goals scored by seven different players at this World Cup. All of this is wildly different from the team's 2011 World Cup run, in which Japan pinned four goals on Mexico in group play, then turned around and lost to England 2-0. That Japan squad didn't seem to have trouble finding the back of the net, as they blanked Sweden 3-0 in the semifinals.

Of course, for all the differences, plenty of similarities exist between the 2011 and 2014 versions of the Japan team. There are 17 players on this roster who played in 2011. Japan still brings that technical skill to the game. Australia admired Japan's patience on the ball and hopes to emulate it, actually.

"The Japanese girls have been together for five, seven years," Stajcic said. "Their chemistry is fantastic. They're technically superb. We'll get there -- we've only been full-time together for five months -- but we have to mature and develop. Our average age is 22, 23, while Japan must be averaging 28, 29 years old. There's no reason the Japanese players are so technical, except years of hard work and practice."

That's another thing this Japanese side has: experience. Or, viewed through another lens: age. That maturity is, in part, likely why Japan started slow at this World Cup. Most of these matches are being played in excruciating heat -- it was 86 degrees in Edmonton at kickoff -- made even hotter by the unforgiving turf. Japan seems to understand there's no need to run around until there's absolutely a need to run around.

"I think the style of play of the Japanese team gives them an advantage in these conditions," Sasaki said.

On Saturday, Japan forced Australia to chase 299 passes in the first half, which Stajcic said cost his team too much of its energy reserve too early in the match.

That's not a good look, especially considering Japan is one of the world's fittest teams.

"The difficulty was the heat, after all. The physical ability and the concentration to keep it up for 90 minutes was a challenge," Japan midfielder Rumi Utsugi said. "But throughout the game, there was resolve by all members to keep it up throughout, and we managed to do that, which resulted in that late goal."

Japan had one sequence early in the second half that looked like quintessential Japan. The team gradually worked the ball up field with a succession of passes, then flicked a little give-and-go near the penalty box that quickly turned the possession into a threat. The ball was crossed and nearly sent via a blind heel toward the Australian keeper. Japan missed the chance, but the buildup was beautiful.

"The fact that we did not have a successful goal earlier, as we look back, may have presented some difficulties," Sasaki said. "But we analyzed the Australian team and set our mind to what we needed to do. Even if we didn't have a goal in 90 minutes, we would certainly do that by 120 minutes. Even at the halftime point, that's what everyone was thinking. The game plan was good, and we executed it very well."

That, right there, seems to be exactly what makes Japan so deadly.

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