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Pressure Mounts On Defending World Cup Champion Japan

Japan players were all smiles during their group-stage win against Ecuador. But now that the 2011 Women's World Cup champs are into the knockout stage, the team is beginning to feel the pressure to repeat. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- This is the knockout stage of the World Cup, so every team must be ready for what could happen. Or what might not.

For instance, Japan's Norio Sasaki, coach of the defending 2011 champions, had this to say when asked what he wanted to make sure wouldn't happen in Tuesday's match against the Netherlands.

"I'm really picky how to organize the luggage,'' he said via a translator. "I have to pack up because I have to move to another city. I'm not going to pack to go back to Japan. Are we going to Moncton? No, no, no, we're going to Edmonton if we win, so I have to pack to go to Edmonton. So I'm a bit nervous now.''

That's understandable. The pressure is clearly on Japan to win so it can advance and continue to defend its World Cup title. And it is expected to win Tuesday evening when playing yet another opponent that is competing its first World Cup.

"This is another first-timer, and some people may call it easy, but they have nothing to lose and we're the champions so they will come out and really come after us,'' Sasaki said. "So in that sense there is pressure for us because we are the champion and we have to play under this pressure.''

There is significant pressure for the Netherlands, too, though. It wants to win the World Cup just like everyone else but it has another goal in mind beyond that. If it can beat Japan, the Netherlands qualifies for the 2016 Olympics. If it loses, next year it must play in a tough qualifying round that includes Sweden.

"For us that would be, well, fantastic is about the only way to say it,'' defender Mandy Van Den Berg said of qualifying for the Olympics. "But we understand that first we have to play that match [against Japan], and second, that we have to win it. And it's going to be a hell of a game and it will be very difficult, but there will be something wonderful waiting for us if we succeed.

"Everything will have to go right [Tuesday] to make that goal and have our ticket into the Olympics. That is something we're very clear about and why we're hungry to get playing.''

Neither Japan nor the Netherlands scored often in the group stage, combining for just six goals. Japan won all its matches by just one goal, including a 1-0 victory over Ecuador, a country that allowed 16 goals in its other two matches. Japan clearly took it easy against Ecuador though, playing everyone on the roster.

Sasaki said he did so because most of his players are of equal ability and he also wanted to give everyone experience in case of injury: "I wanted to give each player a chance to play.''

Japan did lose a player when veteran striker Kozue Ando broke her ankle in the opening match. The team placed a white teddy bear on the bench in her honor. "The white teddy bear is a substitute for her so we don't have any problem,'' midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi said. "We have her.''

While many teams and players have complained loudly about the use of artificial turf (how do you feel about it again, Abby Wambach?), the Netherlands is enjoying it. Interestingly, its women's teams generally play on artificial turf, and its World Cup qualifying matches were played on turf as well. That could be an advantage, and a needed one, given that it had only one victory -- 1-0 over New Zealand -- in the group stage.

Japan, meanwhile, is dealing with the turf just like everyone else.

"The turf from the practice field and the game field is different, and that is giving us some hard times,'' Sakaguchi said. "But of course, every team has the same condition, so this cannot be an excuse. We have to adapt to the artificial turf as soon as possible.''

Um, yeah. Like, by Tuesday evening, when it and the Netherlands take the pitch at BC Place Stadium (10 p.m. ET).

"These are the exact matches that we love to play,'' Netherlands coach Roger Reuners said. "A large podium, good opposition and it's going to be a huge match -- probably the biggest we've played until now.''