We had our clash of teams that have looked most dominant so far, and we can pare that list down to “one team that’s looked dominant so far.” And in something of a surprise, Canada got their leaden asses booted back to the Great White North. Let’s get in.
It had become something of the most anticipated game of the group stage after both teams disemboweled both Zambia and Costa Rica in their first two games. It is now perhaps the most eye-popping result of the tournament so far, at least up there with Colombia-Germany. What it means going forward is a little murkier, but we’ll save that for later.
Every soccer fan recognizes the “Spanish Syndrome,” which is a lot of tidy possession and passes that don’t go much of anywhere. Japan seemed perfectly equipped to deal with all of this from their 3-4-3 that easily fades into a 5-4-1, which we’d seen in the opening throes of their game against Zambia as they initially started just a touch wary of Zambia’s speed on the counter before they figured out they could pull them anywhere they wanted in attack. Even with Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas pushing up from midfield to join the Spanish front three, Japan had five defenders to match them up.
And Spain didn’t offer too much variety. They’re just not going to hit bit switch-balls from one side to the other to try to open up space. They’re loath to cross from deep, even though their one-half-chance of the first half came from such a ploy as Bonmati running from deep got between two Japan defenders, and barely missed a telling contact on the cross. They don’t play quick enough, when they’re at their infuriating worst, to get in behind a defense even though they have world-class speed in Salma Paralluelo. While their technical skills on the ball remain off the charts, Japan pretty much squeezed any space between that 5 and 4 in their formation, which limited the one-twos, and quick touches that Spain generally specialize in to open teams up.
And of course, whatever combination of wingers Japan uses are simply lethal on the break. It’s not much of a secret that Spain’s fullbacks are going to push all the way up the field when in possession, and it’s also not much of a secret that their defense is kind of slow. Even more so thanks to the continued omission of a good chunk of their A-squad thanks to the conflict with the Spanish FA and manager Jorge Vilda. There definitely looked like a Mapi Leon-sized hole in defense against Japan. See for yourself:
Olga Carmona will want to burn the tape of this one. Spain’s line for the first goal is comedic, all the way at the halfway line:
Which begs the question of whether their keeper Maria Rodriguez shouldn’t be playing more as a sweeper-keeper and cutting this through-ball out, because you can land an Airbus between her, and the defense. Spain were caught merely defending with three players whenever they turned the ball over, and against Japan’s directness and incisiveness, that’s death. As soon as Japan got the ball they were flooding either side of Spain’s defensive midfielder Teresa Abbelleira and then getting outside the two centerbacks. It was that simple. Put it this way, there’s a reason every Pep Guardiola team fouls whenever it loses possession unexpectedly. It’s to avoid exactly this.
Still, one wonders how worried Spain will be. One, they were already through. And neither Norway nor Switzerland look any different in terms of providing a challenge, even if Norway got themselves together in the last group game. Two, Japan scored on four of their five shots on target. A ratio that is not likely to repeat itself again. But in a knockout game, it might only take one, and Spain certainly looked pretty capable of giving up that one. USWNT fans can be forgiven for dreaming of what Sophia Smith or Trinity Rodman (or should Vlakto miraculously discover he is allowed to use Lynn Williams) might do with space like that in a possible quarterfinal.
As for Japan, there’s little to add to their brilliance, and what might tell the tale later on in this tournament is how fresh they can remain. Only one outfield player hasn’t seen the field in the squad. Only four haven’t gotten at least 90 minutes. They now have two center forwards who have gotten a taste of scoring in Mino Tanaki and Riko Ueki, and both have chipped in assists as well. Five players have multiple goal contributions. They are so well drilled that any player that steps onto the field knows the assignment perfectly. And they’ve shown flexibility, seamless flexibility, in being able to tear apart teams that have sat back, or teams that have dominated the ball. They can do it any way you want it. Knockout soccer is always tricky and hinges on such few moments, but that ability to play multiple different ways is about as sure of protection as a team can get. Switzerland will cause Japan to revert more to what their first two games looked like, and they have more to offer than either Costa Rica, or Zambia, but certainly not enough that Japan won’t be heavily, and rightly favored. The bandwagon is getting full on the Nadeshiko Express.
Zambia gets a landmark win in what was a dead rubber, and probably a more even game than the scoreline suggests. Costa Rica had a goal chalked off in the second half that would have made it 2-2, and couldn’t find another equalizer before Zambia put it to bed in injury time. Again, much like Morocco, having something more to take home than just appearing is a huge deal for Zambia, especially after the way they were mauled in their first two games. Taken one step, in time they’ll take another.
Proving once again that the Tokyo Olympics was a Mickey Mouse tournament (tee hee).
Australia was feeling the heat before this one, given the way they crumbled against Nigeria, and put themselves on the rack, needing a win against an, at least, experienced Canada side. But sometimes experience and $3 will get you on the bus, as Canada violently found out.
The one thing Canada couldn’t do was give up an early goal to get the place rocking and settle Aussie nerves in the biggest game in the team’s history. So it wasn’t really an opportune time for the right side of Canada’s defense in fullback Jayde Riviere and Kadeisha Buchanan to spend most of the match at the zoo:
To boot, when Hayley Raso picks up this ball in the box, Canadian keeper Kailen Sheridan’s positioning is…interesting?
That’s a whole lot to fire at.
Buchanan’s day wouldn’t get much better, as she was late in stepping up before the Aussies’ third goal, which left Caitlin Foord the space, and time to write an updated version of Ulysses. Sheridan’s day wouldn’t get much better either after the opener, as she was flapping at a corner that then rebounded to Raso to finish from a foot and a half out.
Even at 2-0 this one was over, given just how balloon-handed Canada was with the ball, and in attack. Christine Sinclair is a Canadian legend in all sports, but it probably says something that in a game where Canada needed a result they had to start an immobile 40-year-old as a #9. It might also say something that, as great as she was, should any player in this day, and age be allowed to accrue 300+ caps without anyone challenging them for a spot, but we’ll save that for another day.
On this day, Australia had no fear of anyone getting behind them, and Sinclair, Jessie Fleming, and Julia Grosso spent most of the first half getting in each other’s way. Jordyn Huitema and Adriana Leon were punchless on the wings, and Australia could afford to double up on them anyway with pretty much no threat in the middle. Again, Canada needed a result here, and in a match they trailed for most of they came up with three shots on target. They can’t claim to be unlucky to be going home.
Australia can breathe again, they get almost a week to try, and get Sam Kerr healthy, and they’ve got a reinvigorated Foord back on the left wing where she’s far more comfortable. A date with any of China, Denmark, or a severely hobbled England won’t be the most terrifying matchup for them either, especially if Kerr can jump on the field in any capacity.
Ireland get the point their battling performances in all three games probably deserved. Once word filtered in that Australia had gone in front, Nigeria played like it knew 0-0 would be enough to get them through. Ireland were scrappy and dedicated but don’t contain a whole lot of nous, and Nigeria had already successfully held out one team (Canada) that lacked imagination too. The entire match only had three shots on target combined, and somewhere around the 70th minute, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that a draw was good enough for both as it became clear that Nigeria wouldn’t have to do anything, thanks to the pounding Canada was taking.
You can probably take your pick of any of Japan’s on the counter, but Jun Endo’s pass for Japan’s opener should have a very fancy cocktail bought for it:
It didn’t end up mattering that much as Australia applied tire tracks to the chest of Canada, but Raso’s opener is why VAR is around. Steph Catley was onside by half a body, though the referee assistant was in kind of a tough spot as Catley was all the way across the field from her. Had this one remained 0-0 for a long time, that’s the kind of decision you don’t want to send a team out of a tournament like this. It’s too important to get those right to appease those who just don’t have the patience to let how VAR is used become more streamlined through time and experimentation.
Of course, Australia had one taken off the board for all the reasons people hate VAR:
Yes, technically this is correct as Ellie Carpenter’s toes are offside, and she’s in the path between Mary Fowler and Kadeisha Buchanan thus interfering with her. Though the way Buchanan’s match went, Carpenter was probably only preventing her from booting this off a teammate’s head and into her own net. Was Buchanan ever really getting there? Would anyone have ever spotted this with the naked eye?
Again, to the rulebook it’s correct, and that’s the idea. It just seems miserly to a heavy, heavy degree. No matter, cheater’s proof and all that as Canada remained dogshit the rest of the game and gave the Aussies a second goal a minute and a half later anyway. Way to take advantage of a break there, hosers.
A counterpoint to the idea that women’s soccer is always polite and light and that Canadians are always genteel
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