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Group D: Japan 2-1 Scotland

Rennes: Japan put themselves to within touching distance of a place in the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019’s knockout stage, producing an improved performance to beat Scotland 2-1 on Friday.

The Asian champions had a point to prove after their lacklustre 0-0 draw with Argentina on Monday, and a youthful Nadeshiko looked more like the team which has appeared in the past two World Cup Finals.

A thumping opening goal from the reinstated Mana Iwabuchi got Japan going in the 23rd minute, before Yuika Sugasawa doubled the lead 14 minutes later, but they had to endure a nervy finale after Lana Clelland pulled a goal back for Scotland with two minutes remaining.

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Even before the match begun, it was a different-looking Japan side, with three new faces, including 19-year-old wide player Jun Endo promoted to the starting line-up for a match head coach Asako Takkaura had given ‘must-win’ status.

Japan were more direct, more attacking and more effective in a first half which produced 12 shots at goal to 2, and it was another new inclusion – 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup MVP Iwabuchi – who gave them the lead with a sweetly struck goal from 20 yards.

Scotland, in their first World Cup, had taken confidence from their earlier 2-1 defeat to England, but they had no answer to Japan in the opening period, with Kim Little clearing a Saki Kumagai header off the goal-line, before Japan went 2-0 up when the excellent Sugasawa converted a penalty after being fouled by Rachel Corsie.

Hina Sugita was unlucky not to add a third in stoppage time, with the crossbar denying her scooped close-range effort, and only a superb diving stop from Lee Alexander prevented Emi Nakajima from scoring early in the second half.

While Japan were superior offensively, they also starved Scotland of opportunities of their own for most of the match, with the new-look central defensive pairing of Kumagai and 21-year-old Nana Ichise rarely putting a foot wrong.

The Scots did rally late, however, and Japan’s first moment of real danger came when Erin Cuthbert hit the crossbar from a tight angle in the 78th minute.

That proved to be a warning of things to come, as substitute Clelland capitalised on a rare Japanese passing error to slam a spectacular Scottish lifeline past Ayaka Yamashita in the 88th minute.

Japan’s campaign - for a few minutes at least - was once again in the balance, but they held on to secure a much-needed win and take their Group D tally to four points with one match remaining, against England on Wednesday.

Photos: FIFA via Getty Images

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