Japan and the United States go head-to-head on Friday for a place in the last four of the Olympic Football Tournament. A big semi-final match-up between competition favourites USA and Germany is on the horizon but with the Americans struggling to find their game and the Asians having already defeated FIFA World Cup runners up Sweden, some observes are not taking anything for granted.
"Japan have proved to be a worthy opponent," said April Heinrichs after her team's 1-1 final group draw against Australia. "They are technically efficient and playing with a lot of confidence. We've had difficulty in beating them in the past and we haven't defeated them this year."
After a somewhat fortuitous win against Brazil and handing the Australians their first point in 17 attempts, the American coach is refusing to entertain any talk of a semi-final re-match with the Germans.
"I never look ahead. It's dangerous," added the experienced Heinrichs, before explaining that there was now little to choose between the top teams in the women's game. "The margin between winning and losing is very tricky in soccer and one of the most difficult things is to win consecutively."
Mixed in with the philosophy though was an honest recognition that her team was still playing below par: "We have some players outstanding one night and others the next - we have to put that all together."
The name Germany, the team that knocked the U.S. hosts out of the FIFA Women's World Cup with a 3-0 victory in the semi-finals, has hardly been breathed since the American girls arrived in Greece. But the world champions' dark shadow has only grown longer after their provocative 8-0 demolition of China.
Heinrichs will be eager to welcome Abby Wambach into the fold after her one-match suspension. The
The 24-year-old is being eyed as a potential team leader when the elder stateswomen have called it a day.
"We'll be happy to have her back," admitted Heinrichs. "She is combining sophistication with strength now. She is strong willed, doesn't mince her words and is supportive of her team-mates. She could be the new leader of the next generation."
Japan's coach Eiji Ueda, who has made no secret about his team's lack of height, has been working on ways to minimise damage. So far, conceding one goal in two matches, his tactics seem to have worked.
"In last year's World Cup, it was impossible for us to beat them," said Ueda. "The result underlines how much our players have improvement since then."
Next up, one of the game's most powerful monsters.
"We will just have to challenge our opponents," added Ueda. "Our morale is getting higher now. We'll do whatever we have to do."
While Homare Sawa is yet to hit top form, 24-year-old Eriko Arakawa has been in scintillating form scoring the team's winner versus the Swedes and causing mayhem with her pace and movement. Tomomi Miyamoto, who was injured in the 1-0 defeat to Nigeria, has, like her team-mates, had four days to recover and is expected to return.
With the eliminated Japanese men in town to give their kin vocal support and a surprise a distinct possibility, everything is set up for a fascinating clash in Thessaloniki.