Paris: A new-look Japan are expected to account for returning Argentina in their Group D opener, but head coach Asako Takakura insists she expects anything but an easy three points on Monday.
It might be the Women’s World Cup, but the two national teams come from different worlds in the women’s game, with Japan establishing themselves at the sport’s top table with a world title in 2011 and reaching the final again four years later.
While Argentina’s class of 2019 can boast nine players who ply their trade in Europe, the South Americans have lost all six of their previous matches in the global Finals, a stage they haven’t appeared at since in 2007
Those dissimilar recent records make Japan warm favourites for the tie at Parc des Princes, but reigning AFC Women’s Coach of the Year Takakura said she is expecting to be challenged by Carlos Borrello’s side, who beat Panama 5-1 in a play-off to return to the Finals.
“We are former champions; therefore, we are hoping we can do it again and there are many people expecting us to do that,” she said.
“We are going to aim for that, step by step, but in reality, it’s not going to be easy at all.
“It’s going to be a difficult journey, and we know that. However, that difficulty is going to be the engine that drives us forward. We’ll face one match at a time, and we’ll do our best in each match.”
While the Nadeshiko’s recent history in the tournament is striking, it is largely a new generation of Japanese talent that will carry their hopes in France.
A significant portion of the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup Cup-winning squad remains, but they are joined by a legion of players in their teens and early 20s, including the important Yui Hasegawa, and four who won the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France last year.
With midfield veteran Mizuho Sakaguchi expected to miss the tie through injury, Takakura called on her young charges to make the most of their chance on the game’s biggest stage.
https://t.co/tKhwZmNVmb#世界のなでしこ #nadeshiko #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/LgxGbxuf7f
— なでしこジャパン (@jfa_nadeshiko) June 9, 2019
“We won the World Cup back in 2011, thanks to all the wonderful players and Japanese women’s football grew a lot,” Takakura recalled.
“In 2015, we did well also, and in youth categories thanks to all the success of the senior teams the younger generations are growing. Now we have lots of new players. Our average age is the second youngest amongst all national teams (in the tournament).
“The players have maintained the Nadeshiko spirit, and that is still there. If the players can be brave, they will be able to grow and develop step by step.”
While the majority of the Japanese squad are embarking on their first senior World Cup, team captain Saki Kumagai has already tasted the ultimate prize in the women’s game,
As a 20-year-old, the composed defender converted the winning penalty kick as Japan defeated the United States in a dramatic final shootout, and her 103 caps worth of experience are now being passed on to her younger teammates.
“It’s our first match, we don’t know what will happen. It’s not going to be easy, but we will be united in order to get the points,” she said.
“It’s my third World Cup; using that experience I am going to tell (the younger players) to enjoy the tournament, because we have other players, and we will all mistakes.”
But even in her third trip to the Finals, Kumagai, who plays her football in France for reigning European champions Olympique Lyonnais, is not immune from World Cup fever.
“When I watched the first match of the tournament, I felt it: that this this is really exciting,” she said.
“The Paris Saint-Germain Stadium, I felt it. I see how major this tournament is.”
Argentina v Japan
FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 Group D
Parc des Princes, Paris
Kick-off: 18.00 (local time)
Photos: AFP, Japan Football Association