Japan's Mana from heaven
© Action Images

"What a player! She's young - only 15, I think - but you can she is a future star of women's football."

These words, echoing the thoughts of everyone inside Hamilton's Waikato Stadium, belonged to France coach Gerard Sergent, and were devoted to Japan's brilliant No10, Mana Iwabuchi. Sergent had just watched the Young Nadeshiko playmaker provide arguably the outstanding individual performance of New Zealand 2008 to date, thrilling the Kiwi crowd and tormenting favourites USA with a display of grace, skill and cunning.

While Sergent furrowed his brow and pondered the merits of assigning a marker to follow Iwabuchi's every step this Sunday, her own coach, Hiroshi Yoshida, merely grinned when asked about his talisman, moving his hand quickly from side-to-side to symbolise her lithe, darting movements. It certainly didn't require Yoshida labelling Iwabuchi "my key player" to identify the 15-year-old's importance to Japan's cause, with the heavily-tipped Americans left to graciously pay tribute to a player hailed as "outstanding" by one crestfallen US star.

"I was actually a bit nervous beforehand," Iwabuchi told FIFA.com, "just because it was the first game and it was against a great team in the US. But we managed to play our own style against them and once I saw that we could do that, I became more relaxed and started to enjoy the match.

It was a great one for us to win because my ambition is to finish top of this group.
Iwabuchi is setting her sights high.

"It was a great one for us to win because my ambition is to finish top of this group. And to do that, we're going to need to keep on winning."

When prompted, Iwabuchi named Lionel Messi and Marta as the players upon whom she has modelled her game, and while comparisons with Argentina's darting genius and women's football's greatest talent are perhaps premature, the technical similarities are nonetheless too obvious to ignore. Like her idols, she also lacks in height, and while the 15-year-old would benefit from developing Marta's power and physique - at just 44 kilos, she is the second-lightest player in the entire tournament - she is already well capable of floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.

The Americans' attempts to dominate her physically certainly floundered and while their panicked plan of ‘doubling up' succeeded to an extent in the second half, Iwabuchi warned France that the same ploy will not work twice. "In the second half, I wasn't able to control the play as I had in the first because of the pressure the Americans put on me," she admitted. "But it was a good for me to experience that kind of tactic and now I know what to expect, I'm sure I can cope with it in our next match."

Worryingly for Les Bleuettes, she also insists that New Zealand hasn't seen anywhere near the best of her yet. "I can do a lot better than I did against the US," she said. "I know I can. And so can our team."

This might seem a remarkable statement, given the stylish manner in which Asia's runners-up disposed of their North American counterparts, but Iwabuchi is clearly a player unaccustomed to settling for anything short of the best. Indeed, when asked if beating the favourites meant that Japan too could now be considered candidates for the title, she responded without hesitation. "Oh yes. Definitely!"

Only time will tell whether her confidence is justified, of course. As for Sergent's bold prediction, that looks to be a safer forecast altogether.