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Tokyo Olympics – Preview: The time is now as Japan's Nadeshiko prepare to bloom


Tokyo: A global powerhouse of the women’s game in the first half of the 2010s, Japan’s rebuild has often been focused on performing at their home Olympics in Tokyo. Now it’s time to deliver.

In the third of our Asian team previews ahead of the football action at this summer’s games, the-AFC.com runs the rule over Asian champions Japan, whose squad combines big-stage experience with outstanding young talent.

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Overview

Less than an hour after Japan defeated Australia to lift their second successive AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Amman back in 2018, the victorious head coach Asako Takakura was already looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics of 2020.

Three years, rather than the anticipated two, have passed since then – with a FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign of only modest success in between – and the time has finally arrived for the Nadeshiko for deliver on home soil.

AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2018: Japan 1-0 Australia

Japan’s squad looks to combine the tournament know-how of the team’s experienced core with some of the outstanding players from world champion youth teams, and while a 12-month delay was never in anyone’s projections, this campaign has years of planning behind it.

It is no coincidence that eight players with less than 10 caps – many of them already stars at FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup level - were called up for Japan’s senior World Cup squad at France 2019, which reached the Round of 16 before losing 2-1 to eventual runners-up the Netherlands.

Seven of those eight will return better for the experience at the Olympics and some, like central defender Moeka Minami (pictured above), could be pivotal to the team’s chances of challenging for a medal.

After a severe lack of matches during the uncertain months of 2020, the team’s recent results suggest things are building nicely.

Japan have warmed up for the tournament with a series of thumping victories, piling on 27 goals in consecutive wins against Paraguay, Panama, Ukraine and Mexico before edging their main continental rivals Australia 1-0 on Wednesday.

Their group is far from easy, but Takakura and her players will believe a run to the latter stages is within their reach, with medals very much on the agenda.

History

After exiting without a point in the first Olympic women’s football tournament in 1996, Japan showed their improvement when they featured in Athens eight years later, losing 2-1 to the United States in the quarter-finals.

Something was brewing in Japanese women’s football, and the team narrowly missed what would have been a surprise medal in 2008, losing again to the US – this team in the semi-finals – before suffering a 2-0 defeat to Germany in the bronze medal playoff.

Japan's global breakthrough did arrive when the likes of Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama lifted the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, and much of the same squad made it all the way to the Olympic final in London a year later, with the Americans taking revenge for their World Cup final defeat in a classic at Wembley.

The Nadeshiko golden era brought outstanding achievements on the world stage, but that all came to an abrupt end when the team failed to qualify for the Rio Games of 2016, meaning it is nearly a decade since one of the modern women’s game’s most successful nations has featured in this event.

Key players

Saki Kumagai

A world class defender or defensive midfielder and arguably the most decorated Asian football of all-time in terms of trophies won, captain Kumagai is aiming to add an Olympic gold medal to a remarkable list of honours which includes a FIFA Women’s World Cup, an AFC Women’s Asian Cup and five UEFA Women’s Champions League titles.

Mana Iwabuchi

The sort of player that makes people want to watch football. Arsenal-bound Iwabuchi is set to resume her role as the Nadeshiko artist-in-residence, and six goals and four assists in her last five internationals suggest the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup Player of the Tournament is ready to deliver.

Yui Hasegawa

A 24-year-old central or left-sided midfielder now plying her trade for AC Milan, Hasegawa has been a national team mainstay since her debut in 2017 for good reason, with technical quality, outstanding football intelligence and a healthy dose of goals making her a virtual must-pick for Takakura.

Group challengers

There are no easy games in the hyper-competitive Olympic tournament and, even as the top-seeded hosts, Japan will have to deal with a group that is at best tricky, and at worst downright daunting.

They’ll begin their campaign against world number eight Canada in Sapporo on July 21, and it doesn’t get any easier when they meet Great Britain – mainly featuring players from sixth-ranked England – three days later.

Chile, ranked 37th – 27 places below Japan – are the third opponents, and the outlier in terms of their prior achievements on the global stage, but even they feature Olympique Lyonnais star Christiane Endler, who is widely considered one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the world.

The Chileans also managed a goalless draw with world number two and 2016 Olympic gold medallists Germany on Thursday, further underlining what will be required to get results at this stratospheric level of competition.

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