Judging by Japan's final Group C display against New Zealand, Mexico could be forgiven a shudder of trepidation as they prepare to face the Asian hopefuls in Thursday's quarter-final. Japan fielded just two regular starters against the Young Football Ferns but still strolled to a 3-0 win, never looking in danger as they highlighted the stunning depth of their squad.
Among the players who seized their chance to finally contest 90 minutes was Mizuki Saihara, though the New Zealand outing was actually her second at Costa Rica 2014. The forward had previously showed off her impressive pace against Paraguay, dribbling the goalkeeper to bury the sixth goal in a 10-0 victory just a minute after coming off the bench.
"When I go onto the pitch, I always try to be decisive in the final third," Saihara told FIFA.com, having used her speed against New Zealand to burst down the left and set up Yui Hasegawa for the opener. "I like to make my pace count down the wing and to cut the ball back to my team-mates."
At 5'7, Saihara is the tallest player in the Little Nadeshiko squad, but what stands out in her playing style are her calm and elegance. Her head always up, the No20 is constantly analysing the game and looking for the best option at any given moment.
Having ended her first start at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup with a slight sense of disappointment, she is clearly a perfectionist too. "I felt very good in the first half, but I dropped off after the break," she said. "I regret that a bit because I wasn't able to see out the match as I'd hoped."
Saihara's limited playing time surely contributed to that, not to mention the sheer effort Japan put in to seal what appeared from the outside like a straightforward success. "It's very tiring physically and we're working together a huge amount to be able to meet the demands of a World Cup," explained the 16-year-old. "I'm happy to see that all the work we do in training has been visible in our first three games."
Asako Takakura's charges now head into the last eight with the best record of all the sides still involved. Not only did they win all their group encounters, they rattled in 15 goals – with ten different players scoring – and conceded none. As for Mexico, they rounded off their group duties with a troubling 3-0 loss to Nigeria.
As a result, Saihara feels optimistic that she and her colleagues can go on to lift the trophy on 4 April, just as Japan's senior side tasted glory at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™ – a triumph that sent shockwaves through Japanese football.
"That makes us want to wear our country's colours with pride and to get the support of the Japanese people," she said. "We also had that terrible earthquake, and as a player I want to achieve things which bring comfort to my country."