Midfield maestros hungry for more
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Japanese midfielders Yoko Tanaka and Hikaru Naomoto were the driving force behind the Young Nadeshiko’s 4-0 win over Switzerland that ensured their team’s place in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Far from resting on their laurels, however, the duo insisted an equally good performance would be required of them in their next game.

Although Tanaka grabbed most the headlines with two superbly executed free-kicks, her control of the midfield in tandem with Naomoto was equally as important in giving the host nation the upper hand in front of 16,914 people at National Stadium in Tokyo.

“It was great playing in front of such a big crowd, but I wasn’t nervous,” Tanaka told FIFA.com after the game. “Japan won the silver medal at the London Olympics, so everyone is talking about women’s football now. I want to win a medal like the senior players did.”

I don’t want to lose to a team from Asia. I’m really pumped up for this game.
Japan midfielder Hikaru Naomoto

A product of the JFA Academy Fukushima, Tanaka’s silky skills back up the claim made by coach Hiroshi Yoshida before the tournament that his team is “the most technically gifted in the world”. Nevertheless, a few chinks in Japan’s armour were exposed during the group stage – they conceded a late goal in the 4-1 opening win over Mexico, and had to dig deep to overcome an early 2-0 deficit against New Zealand in their second outing to draw 2-2. Tanaka initiated the comeback by scoring Japan’s first goal, but she revealed a fierce competitive streak when she later said was “extremely disappointed” that her team had not gone on to defeat the Kiwis and book a spot in the next round.

However, things clicked for Japan against Switzerland as they put on a complete performance, with Tanaka taking her goal tally for the tournament to four with two sweet strikes.

“The first one, I just tried to caress the ball and it went in the net. The second goal came from a free-kick I’d been practicing at training, and it was the first time I’ve scored one like that. I kicked it just like I planned and it went in,” she recalled.

Korean challenge
The Young Nadeshiko face Korea Republic in the quarter-final in Tokyo on Thursday, and Tanaka is already looking forward to the showdown with one of their Asian rivals.

“We had a few tough times during the group stage, but we got through,” Tanaka said. “Korea Republic are a solid, tenacious team so I’m sure it’ll be a tough game. We want to play our own style of football, and if we work hard hopefully the goals and the win will follow.”

Naomoto, who has forged a formidable partnership with Tanaka since their days in the U-17 team, was also excited by the challenge ahead.

“Physically, we’ll be fine for the next game,” Naomoto, who scored against Mexico and Switzerland, told FIFA.com. “I’m a better player than I was at the U-17 World Cup two years ago, my passing is more accurate and I’m confident in my football ability. I’m strong enough that I won’t get muscled off the ball now. I don’t want to lose to a team from Asia. I’m really pumped up for this game.”