At this exact stage of the 2015 World Cup, Japan beat the Netherlands 2-1 and went on to reach their second consecutive final. Asako Takakura’s side are under no pressure to repeat the feats of their predecessors; after all, the two teams have followed vastly divergent trajectories since then.
The Dutch had qualified for that knockout round as one of the four best third-placed teams; they set up this 2019 re-match – a clear case of past vs present in the sport – by topping their group through an emphatic win. The former world champions are building a team for the future, while the reigning European champions are looking to graduate from their status as dark horses at the biggest stage, hoping to transition from pretenders to the throne to genuine contenders.
Knocking out Japan this early would be considered quite an accomplishment, considering the fact that the Netherlands are yet to prove themselves at this level at the World Cup. It should be kept in mind that this is only their second appearance at the finals, but expectations and aspirations have changed considerably since their debut four years ago. It does help that they have useful experience in a knockout environment: they won every knockout fixture by multiple goals at the 2017 European Championship on the way to lifting the trophy.
The Dutch attack runs through Vivianne Miedema. Their new all-time top scorer has had a direct hand in 43% of her team’s total shots at the tournament so far, taking 11 herself (scoring two goals) and creating four chances. That, along with Daniellë van de Donk orchestrating the play in midfield, has gone some way in helping the side cope with Lieke Martens’ quiet group stage performances.
Sarina Wiegman’s side look disorganised at the back, but boast arguably the most formidable forward line at this World Cup: in their final group stage match against Canada, they scored twice against a team that had conceded only once in 2019.
By contrast, goals don’t come easily for Japan. Their technical, possession-heavy football has been sorely let down by the final ball up front, and they can be frustrated when facing an organised defence. They scored just twice in the group stage – one was a penalty – both against a Scotland team that has now gone home. When on the offence, they rely on razor-sharp passing and rapid movement to break down opponents, but they can also be stifled if they cannot control the pace of play.
The Netherlands will be expected to control, if not dominate, this tie. Possessing better talent in both midfield and attack, they will attempt to push Japan back to allow their forwards to fill the resulting gaps. They are shaky at the back but Japan simply lack the cutting edge to punish them for it, and were guilty of that in the defeat to England.
After exposing defensive vulnerabilities in the Lionesses’ backline, they failed to capitalise and spurned a hatful of chances. Yuika Sugasawa, who scored the penalty against Scotland, came closest to getting the equaliser, while young midfielder Hina Sugita also impressed in the centre of the park.
Managing this Dutch front line will require some extraordinary individual effort from Japan’s defence. A victory for them could even be considered a minor upset, which might be strange for a team that is considered royalty in women’s football. There is a chance of that happening – nothing can be ruled out, especially at a World Cup – but it is very slim.
The Netherlands have too much firepower: their win against Canada was hard-fought, but they did win in the end. It could well be a similar story in Rennes, with a similar result. The new-look Nadeshiko may be able to hold them off for a while, but eventually the Dutch are going to break through.
Hritika has selected Vivianne Miedema, Daniellë van de Donk and Hina Sugita for Netherlands vs Japan on Twelve’s game, but who would you choose? Download our free app on Android or iOS to take her on!