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Iwabuchi’s instant impact revives Japanese hopes

Rennes: Mana Iwabuchi returned to the starting line-up for Japan’s second FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 group stage fixture, and so did the Nadeshiko’s attacking verve as they sealed a pivotal 2-1 win over Scotland on Friday.

The 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup’s Most Valuable Player only featured as a substitute in Japan’s 0-0 Matchday One draw against Argentina, but she made the most of her recall against the Scots, giving her side a 23rd-minute lead with a crashing 20-yard drive.

It proved to be one of the key moments in the all-important clash, and Iwabuchi was awarded Player of the Match for an excellent overall contribution alongside Yuika Sugasawa.

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Speaking after the game, the 2011 World Cup-winner revealed her relief at helping claim a win which makes Japan’s path to the knockout stage significantly clearer.

“Well, we fought hard as a team, really,” she said. “So, I was thrilled when I scored because that goal represents the entire team.

“After the draw (against Argentina) we reviewed the game well, and today we went for a better result. We won, so I’m very happy about it.”

The 26-year-old was an ever-present in Japan’s five matches at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, scoring twice and proving an invaluable source of creativity in the final third, but Kumi Yokoyama was the preferred starter on Matchday One, with Iwabuchi receiving just over half an hour of game time off the bench.

Now in her third World Cup - having won the title as a teenager in 2011 before reaching the final four years later –Friday’s match against Scotland remarkably provided Iwabuchi’s first World Cup start, with her previous appearances all coming as a substitute.

The INAC Kobe Leonessa forward certainly made the most of the opportunity, and she explained post-match that she had been focused solely on claiming three points.

“Personally, I joined not from the beginning (against Argentina) but from somewhere later in the first match, but in this one I was there from the start,” she said.

“The one thing on my mind the whole time was to win the match and that’s what everyone had in mind. Of course, we only scored two, but we won so I’m happy with the result.

“I think we managed to really pressure them successfully through defence and in attack. We were quite effective today.”

After a difficult start to life in France, the belief is back for one of the tournament’s most successful recent participants, and another win against England in Japan’s final group stage on Wednesday will now secure top place in Group D.

Iwabuchi feels the confidence coming back, but is also full of respect for Phil Neville’s third-ranked side, and she declared the Nadeshiko must continue to improve if they are to challenge them in Nice.

“Now we can really take on England,” she said. “But having said that, England is on a different level (to Scotland) so, we need to enjoy this, but also know we really have to go and fight and come forward (against England).”

Photos: AFP

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