When England faced Japan four years ago in their World Cup semifinal in Canada, the Lionesses lost the tie, heartbreakingly, through an own goal in the 92nd minute. The stakes aren’t quite as high this time around – it is ‘only’ the group stage, and both teams have already progressed into the next round – but it is not a complete dead rubber.
Victory against Japan in the SheBelieves Cup in March, despite it being a friendly tournament, and the manner in which they secured it will no doubt have given Phil Neville’s side confidence ahead of their meeting in Nice. Now, after narrowly defeating Scotland and overcoming Argentina’s attempts to frustrate them, England should be well-prepared for their final test after these two difficult fixtures.
Neville pointed out that “Japan struggled to create chances against Argentina but we didn’t”. The South Americans held the former world champions to a goalless draw, in which Asako Takakura’s side looked every inch the team in transition they were thought to be. A much more composed performance against Scotland served as a timely reminder of their class, encapsulated by Mana Iwabuchi’s fine finish, although they could do with some ruthlessness to match the levels of dominance.
Takakura started striker Iwabuchi ahead of Kumi Yokoyama and replaced winger Yui Hasegawa with 19-year-old Jun Endo. The changes were vindicated when the two combined for Japan’s opener, with Endo attacking from the left to find Iwabuchi in space near the edge of the area.
The 26-year-old is playing in her third World Cup, and made a strong case for featuring more prominently in this edition of the tournament: after impressing as a substitute against Argentina and then going further by scoring in the next match, it is easy to see why Takakura relied on Iwabuchi’s experience to inject attacking quality into this side.
Her 21st international goal set the tone, and after that Scotland started to crumble under their opponents’ high press. At the stroke of half-time, Aya Sameshima brilliantly got down the left side and pulled it back for Hina Sugita, but her scuffed effort bounced off the crossbar. Japan did concede in the final minutes, however, and should be wary of similar endeavours from England on Wednesday.
Speaking of ruthlessness, the thriving Lucy Bronze-Nikita Parris combination was reaching lethal levels against Scotland. The threat was constant and their link resolute, but perhaps the scariest part was that neither Bronze nor Parris were at their clinical best.
Argentina had different ideas: Bronze bore the brunt of their “rebel spirit” as their opponents looked to cut off her effective partnership with Parris, while in midfield Jill Scott and Jade Moore also got their share of pushing and shoving. All of which, it turned out, seemed to spur the Lionesses on as they gave Argentina a share of their own treatment, and it culminated in Jodie Taylor’s counter-attacking goal.
After coming through another difficult test, Neville and England will have the chance to allow for some squad rotation for their final one; they only need a point to finish top of Group D, and from there a theoretically straightforward route to the semifinals is on the cards.
But Japan are no pushovers, and Takakura insisted there is more to come from her young Nadeshiko team in this tournament and hopes to see further improvement from them. It will make for an interesting showdown between the two top 10 sides who have history between them; a future is now two days away.