Japan face the USA in what, on paper, looks a semi-final mismatch. The skilful East Asians have never beaten the much-vaunted American women in over 20 meetings, and they have already lost to Pia Sundhage's side 1-0 in the group stages of these Beijing finals.
Even so, Norio Sasaki is full of confidence ahead of the meeting in Beijing on Monday, citing his side's heartening improvements in a 5-1 win over Norway and a 2-0 win over hosts China in the quarter-finals. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the coach on the eve of the last-four showdown...
FIFA.com: How do you rate Japan's performances so far?
Norio Sasaki: In the opening match against USA, we failed to play together in our collective style and we had some trouble putting pressure on them. But as each game passed we got better and better. We're not physically the strongest team in the competition, so we rely on patience, and playing as a unit. We have found our rhythm, especially in our 5-1 win over Norway in our last group game and our quarter-final win over China.
How are you expecting the semi-final with the USA to go?
It will be our second time playing the US here in China [Japan lost 1-0 to the USA in the group stages]. If we manage to beat them we would meet either Brazil or Germany, so there are only very good teams left in the finals. Since we are here in the last four, we have the chance to measure ourselves against the best. The match against the USA will really be a signpost for us. Like I said, we are getting better with every match, so let's see how we do.
Do you fear this American side?
They're moving into high gear now, there is no doubt. With their new coach [Pia Sundhage], they play an impressive 4-4-2 style with a good balance between attack and defence. They will be better than when they beat us in the first round, but we believe in ourselves and we'll have to see how things go.
Will you need to limit their set pieces because of their superior size?
Yes. In the last match the defenders had a very hard time clearing free kicks from the larger American players. In the quarter-final against China we did a much better job at defending set pieces, so we will need to keep that going and concentrate because we can't rely on our height against the USA. Even our goalkeeper is short compared the US players (laughs).
Do you have any general musings before your semi-final?
We just want to prove ourselves in this tournament. We are one of the smaller teams, but I think we can surprise the world. You see what happened at EURO 2008? Spain won the title, without the biggest players but with a sense of team-work and technique. We take heart from this and hope to so the same thing.