After appearing at the last four editions of the premier event in women's football, Japan are determined not to miss the party this year. Nevertheless, they still have one major obstacle to overcome before they can start preparing in earnest for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 . Fourth place at last year's AFC Women's Championship earned the Asian outfit a play-off berth against CONCACAF side Mexico, with whom they now go head to head over two legs (10 March in Tokyo and 17 March in Mexico City) for the last remaining berth in China.
Hiroshi Ohashi, Japan's no-nonsense coach, feels the assignment will be far from easy: "Mexico are very good technically and they can catch you off guard with their movement. Therefore, we'll have to be very sharp in attack and with our short passing game, while remaining strong and putting their system under pressure."
Nadeshiko Japan, as the team are popularly known as (nadeshiko being Japanese for the wild pink carnation that has come to symbolise the country's ideal woman) know all about facing Mexico at this stage in proceedings. In fact, they eliminated El Tri in the play-offs four years ago en route to USA 2003 , following up a 2-2 draw in front of 75,000 spectators at the Estadio Azteca with a 2-0 win at Tokyo's National Stadium.
Eight members of that feted side - Nozomi Yamago, Hiromi Isozaki, Tomoe Sakai, Homare Sawa, Tomomi Miyamoto, Mio Otani, Eriko Arakawa and Karina Maruyama - remain in Ohashi's squad and will be hoping to bring their experience to bear against Mexico. Indeed two of them, Sawa and Maruyama, got the all-important goals in the return leg in 2003, and could prove vital once again this year.
Ohashi will be hoping veterans such as goalkeeper Yamago and midfielder Miyamoto prove the perfect foil for exciting but less experienced talents like Yuri Nagasato and Aya Miyama, the scorer of a goal against China PR at the group stage of the continental championship last July.
Since being consigned to the play-offs by Korea DPR at the afore-mentioned AFC Championship, Ohashi has been focusing all his energies on preparing his girls for their date with destiny against Mexico.
Consequently, the coach will have taken considerable encouragement from his side's runners-up spot at last December's Asian Games in Doha , where they demonstrated a slick and well-organised attack as well as a solid defence. Indeed, with better luck in the penalty shoot-out, they could even have pipped old foes Korea DPR to the title.
In February 2007, Japanese confidence received another fillip with their performance at a quadrangular tournament in Cyprus that also featured Norway, Sweden and Scotland. The Nadeshiko opened with a 1-0 win over the Norwegians, followed up by an impressive 2-2 draw with Sweden before signing off with a 2-0 victory over Scotland. The resulting morale boost was entirely understandable, especially given that both their Scandinavian opponents are in the top five of the FIFA Women's World Ranking (Norway at three and Sweden at four) and also among Europe's qualifiers for China 2007.
Ohashi gathered his troops on 1 March for an intensive preparatory programme ahead of their showdown with Mexico. Nothing has been left to chance, with the coach even having an acclimatisation chamber installed at the training camp to help his players get used to the rarefied air they will experience in the Mexican capital.
One concern for Ohashi, however, is the fitness of his star player Homare Sawa. The veteran midfielder, scorer of 59 goals in 116 internationals, is in a race to be fit after picking up an injury last January that ruled her out of the trip to Cyprus. While the player will be given until the last possible moment to prove her fitness, the coach has adequate cover in the form of Aya Miyama, a technically gifted midfielder with two good feet and a penchant for getting forward.
Either way there is likely to be very good service to Yuki Nagasto, the top scorer last season in the Japanese women's league. Still only 19, it is hoped that the striker's undoubted quality will compensate for her relative inexperience at this level. Meanwhile at the back, the Mexican girls will have to find a way past the fierce marking and formidable aerial ability of Azusa Iwashimizu.
While understandably keen to avoid any complacency, the confidence drawn from their 2003 play-off success should stand the Nadeshiko in good stead as they bid for a fifth consecutive appearance at a FIFA Women's World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Nozomi Yamago (Urawa Reds Ladies), Miho Fukumoto (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Ayumi Kaihori (Speranza FC)
Defenders: Hiromi Isozaki (Tasaki Perule), Aya Shimokozuru (Tasaki), Kozue Ando (Urawa), Yukari Kinga (NTV Beleza), Kyoko Yano (Ianagawa University), Nayuha Toyoda (Beleza), Azusa Iwashimizu (Beleza), Rumi Utsugi (Beleza)
Midfielders: Tomoe Sakai (Beleza), Homare Sawa (Beleza), Tomomi Miyamoto (Iga FC), Miyuki Yanagita (Urawa), Shinobu Ono (Beleza), Aya Miyama (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Maiko Nakaoka (Tasaki), Mizuho Sakaguchi (Tasaki)
Forwards: Mio Otani (Tasaki), Eriko Arakawa (Beleza), Karina Maruyama (Tepco Mareeze), Yuki Nagasato (Beleza)