<
>

2019 Women's World Cup team previews: Japan

Japan has a strong history in the Women's World Cup, but this is an inexperienced team going up against some big-time competition. Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Japan has a brilliant record in the World Cup, having won the tournament in 2011 and reached the final four years ago. But this is a young team. The squad still has experience, with remaining players from previous World Cups, but there's an element of the unknown about this group. It has big shoes to fill, but with Japan, there's always a chance of emulating that famous class from eight years ago.

How they got here

Qualification was confirmed through winning the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup. Japan saw off China PR 3-1 in the semifinal and then edged past Australia 1-0 thanks to Kumi Yokoyama's late goal, which secured Japan's second continental title in four years.

Strengths/weaknesses

Japan knows what it takes to get to a final, having reached that stage in the past two World Cups, but the manager has gone with youth recently, with just three players over 30. Japan will be charged with continuing its rich pedigree in the tournament, having qualified for every World Cup to date. And what it lacks in experience, Japan makes up for unknown quantities. This could help stun an opponent or two when the tournament starts. Midfielder Yuka Momiki, who has the potential to be one of the stars of the World Cup, believes speed and accuracy can make up for their lack of physicality.

In Japan's past couple of friendlies, it has struggled to get a grip on the match when the opposition plays with a controlled tempo. Following its 2-2 draw with Germany in April where the team twice squandered the lead, Asako Takakura called on her side to improve decision-making and ability to anticipate opposition plays. The Japanese form is also a concern with Takakura after a 3-1 loss to France last month: "There was nothing good," Takakura said. [It was a] complete defeat." But Japan will take heart from its 3-1 win over Brazil in the SheBelieves Cup and 2-2 draw with USA.

Money stat: 3

No team has ever reached three World Cup finals on the bounce. Japan won the tournament in 2011 thanks to a 3-1 win on penalties over the U.S., then lost in 2015 in a repeat of the same match.

Players to watch

Captain Saki Kumagai spends her time in the gray area between defense and midfield but is one of the most accomplished and talented defensive midfielders in the game. She finished 12th in the 2018 Ballon D'Or and is part of the dominant Lyon side that has won the past three Champions League titles. Having made her international debut at just 17, she is now a mainstay in the side with 103 caps, and she skippered Japan to the 2018 Asian Cup.

Key game

If Japan starts well, it's possible its third-round matchup with England could be to win the group. But Scotland in Round 2 should not be underestimated. The tournament newcomers will have that wonderful fillip and enthusiasm of being in their first World Cup and will fancy their chances against the inexperienced Japan.

Local feedback

"We've got a lot more young players in the squad now and obviously the coach is different as well. So, everything feels new. I think, for upcoming tournaments, one of our strengths will be that we all have a shared perspective.

"The Japanese style is typically centred on organisation and intelligent movement, so we'll try and combine those with creative ideas and fresh thinking, which are especially evident in the younger players in our squad. These should be our strengths and I hope we'll be able to demonstrate them in our team play." -- Japan defensive midfielder Rumi Utsugi

Prediction

Japan should get out of the pool as runners-up and will likely face Netherlands in the round of 16. That game will be decided on the toss of a coin, but whoever wins will have an uphill battle against potentially Australia in the quarterfinals. Expect Japan to be knocked out in the round of 16 -- but not for the want of trying.