Goalkeeper Ikeda hoping for memorable birthday
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In Tuesday’s semi-final at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, the Young Nadeshiko had no answer for a German onslaught that produced three goals in the opening 20 minutes. Although Japan came back into the match and kept the reigning champions from adding to their tally, they were unable to crack their defence and duly bowed out.

“We just couldn’t play our natural game,” Japan goalkeeper Sakiko Ikeda said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “That’s the most frustrating thing. In the second half, I tried to come out to collect crosses from the wings, so maybe if I’d done that in the first half I could’ve prevented Germany’s third goal,” which came from a corner. “Perhaps if we’d been a little bit more composed, we mightn’t have conceded the other goals, too. It’s just so disappointing. I think I was guilty of not properly communicating with my defenders early on, which led to the first goal.”

While the early defensive lapses left Japan reeling, they gradually gained their share of possession. However, the fluency and flair that had made Japan a genuine title contender at this tournament was largely absent. According to Ikeda, getting the ball forward will be a key element in the team’s preparations for Nigeria, who lost 2-0 to USA in the other semi-final.

“We knew Germany would play at pace, but maybe we could’ve prepared slightly better to counter that. They made maximum use of their strengths and we couldn’t get into a rhythm. Even when we had possession at the back, we’d knock it around but not really go anywhere. When we tried to move upfield, we often didn’t get the ball into good attacking areas. We’ll need to improve those aspects of our game,” said Ikeda, who plays for Urawa Reds Ladies.

Cause for celebration
Saturday will be a special day for Ikeda for another reason – it is her 20th birthday, the legal age of adulthood in Japan. When reminded of this, a smile broke out on the goalkeeper’s face. This will be the first time she has played an official game on her birthday, and she hopes the entire team will have something to celebrate.

“I hope we wrap up this tournament with a good result and a good performance,” she said.

Her team-mates are aware of the day’s significance for Ikeda. “This team makes quite a fuss about birthdays,” captain Nozomi Fujita told FIFA.com with a chuckle. “Sakko (Ikeda) has made some excellent saves and done a great job in goal. I hope we can keep a clean sheet and celebrate with a win.”

Fujita knows her side will need to put in an improved performance if they want to defeat the Falconets. “I wanted to dominate the central midfield, but Germany launched many attacks from that part of the field. We were too predictable in attack and defence, and we must adjust better during a game. Our backline and goalkeeper played well, but we could’ve controlled the game better if we’d tightened up the midfield,” Fujita said.

While there has been some soul-searching since Tuesday’s defeat, Ikeda is proud of her team’s achievement at Japan 2012 and is determined to go out with a bang in front of the home fans.

“I think I’ve performed well throughout the five games so far,” Ikeda said. “As a team we’ve improved, and I’ve learned so much. I want to show what I can do in the match for third place.”

The Young Nadeshiko will certainly be hoping Ikeda gets a birthday present she will never forget.