JAPAN vs. NETHERLANDS
When: Tuesday, 10 p.m., ET
Where: BC Place, Vancouver
TV: TV: NBC Universo, NBCDeportes.com
Team records: Japan 3-0-0 (winner Group C); Netherlands 1-2-0 (third in Group A)
Best performance at World Cup: Japan 2011 (champion); Netherlands 2015 (first appearance at World Cup)
Japan – Saki Kumagai: It’s easy to forget that Kumagai is just 24, still one of the youngest players on the second-oldest team in the tournament (wonder who the oldest is?). As good as she was at center back in 2011 (I think you could have made a case for her to be tournament MVP), she has spent the last four years playing in Germany (Frankfurt) and France (Lyon). Alas, she doesn’t score goals, but any discussion of the best players in the world probably shouldn’t get too far before they get to Kumagai. Japan allowed a single goal (to Cameroon) in the group stages, and if they have a chance to repeat, Kumagai will have to continue at her 2011 form because Japan just can’t afford to concede many times.
Netherlands – Vivianne Miedema: We haven’t heard much from the rising teenage Dutch star, and I guess if you’re a supporter, you can look at the glass half-full and say they made it to the knockout rounds anyway. What is scary for Japan is that Miedema looked a little more comfortable against Canada, and she might be just rounding into form at the right time to pull an upset. She has the size to trouble Japan, although Kumagai and company have not had a huge problem with size in the last few years.
Under the radar key players:
Japan – Mizuho Sakaguchi: They took all nine points, so it’s hard to complain, but one of the surprising things in the group stages is that Japan hasn’t dominated possession against decent teams (it did against Ecuador). Switzerland finished with a 55-45 edge in that category, and it was much worse in the second half of the opener. You would figure Sakaguchi (along with Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama) should be able to dominate a rather mediocre midfield in this game, and if they can’t, it might be time to seriously worry about the Japanese (if they survive, of course).
Netherlands – Sherida Spitse: She only turned 25 last month, but this will already be Spitse’s 107th cap for the Netherlands. Spitse began her international career at 16 and has been a mainstay in the center of the field ever since as the Netherlands’ world profile continued to grow all the way to a World Cup berth. However, she has struggled a bit in Canada, particularly in a rough effort against China where the Dutch midfield was dominated (and outshot 26-7), even if it took a stoppage time winner to beat them. They (and Spitse) looked like a different team against Canada, however, and against a struggling Japanese midfield, she could be the most important player for the Netherlands.
Inside the numbers:
Number of days off for the Netherlands between their last group stage game against Canada and this one. To be fair, Japan will have eight days off as well, and – although it will be a 7 p.m. kickoff in Vancouver – this is a pretty late start as well. The winner will get only three days off before they have to play their quarterfinal (their opponent will have four), but at least they get to stay in beautiful Vancouver.
Homare Sawa is tied for the Japan team lead in shots with six (even with Yuika Sugasawa), but none of her six attempts have been on frame. Saving it until it really matters possibly? Miedema leeks the Netherlands, also with six, with Manon Melis and Spitse right behind her with four. Alas, none of those three players has scored, but Kiersten van de Ven (who has played only 19 minutes) scored perhaps the biggest Dutch goal with her only shot attempt of the tournament against Canada.
Breaking it down:
The last match of the second round features two of the toughest squads to break down thus far in the tournament. Japan has been far from impressive, getting dominated by Cameroon in the second half, holding off Switzerland, and only scoring a single goal against hapless Ecuador. Now they won all three, and could probably make a case that they’re just pacing themselves, especially in the final match against Ecuador with the group already (virtually) decided.
Still, you have to worry about the Japanese offense, which wasn’t prolific even before Kozue Ando went down just 30 minutes into the tournament. Yuki Ogimi – who the Nadeshiko need to lead the way – has shown little thus far, and Yuika Sugasawa has been pressed into a role the team didn’t expect her to have.
Add the fact that there was some slight turmoil off the field in March when an apparently healthy Homare Sawa was left off the Algarve Cup roster by Norio Sasaki, and the team subsequently lost to Denmark and badly to France (coming off the heels of losing the Asian Cup to North Korea last fall), and there are more than a couple of question marks to account for.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has shown they have some dangerous attacking players in Miedema, Lieke Martens, Danielle van de Donk, and Manon Melis, and were able to take the fight to host Canada when it needed to most in the final match. While they have no history at the World Cup, the BeNe League (combining Belgium and the Netherlands for women) has been a big success, at least as far as developing players is concerned. The Dutch went to the semifinals in Euro 2009, beating France and losing in extra time to England. They also held Germany to a 0-0 draw at Euro 2013 before a disappointing loss to Iceland eliminated them.
So they shouldn’t be scared of the world champs, especially the form that they’re currently in. Might the Netherlands be able to take down the Japanese in a similar manner to what the Nadeshiko did to Germany four years ago?
It’s possible, but we’re sticking with Japan for at least one more round.
Prediction: Japan 1-0