Iwashimizu leading Japan’s defence from the front

Amid all the attention to Japan’s technical prowess and ability to maintain possession, the world champions also boast impressive defensive capabilities. In their charge to the semi-finals at Canada 2015, the Nadeshiko have constantly defied opposition attacks thanks to both a solid structure and resolute individual performances. Indeed Japan have conceded just twice in their five matches thus far, and they have yet to concede prior to the 90th minute.

A sometimes unheralded component in a team of stars is central defender Azusa Iwashimizu. Yet the 28-year-old has been an ever-present during Japan’s most glorious period, winning the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament silver medal. She was even present four years earlier when the Nadeshiko first blossomed on the international stage as they reached the semi-finals at Beijing 2008.

Now the challenge for the Class of 2015 is to maintain their winning form for two more matches. A win in Wednesday’s semi-final against England in Edmonton will set up a match-up with either Germany or USA in the Canada 2015 Final.

Japan captain Aya Miyama said before the 1-0 quarter-final win over Australia that the Nadeshiko were only playing at 60 per cent of their capability. And of concern to England will be Iwashimizu’s view that Japan are still to peak. “I believe we can do a lot better, and we are all working hard on it,” Iwashimizu told FIFA.com. “In the quarter-final, we had a good tempo in offence and created chances, but we couldn't score when we had that rhythm, and the goal was from a set-play. There were some good parts in the match against Australia but I think the match against Netherlands was also good.”

Four years on England will be well advised to keep an eye on Iwashimizu at set-plays. The No3 was the unlikely score of the winner in last year’s AFC Asian Women’s Cup final against Australia, and looked dangerous whenever she got forward against the same opponent last Saturday.

And Iwashimizu says reaching this stage is different than four years ago when Japan knocked out hosts Germany with an against-the-odds last-eight win. “Four years ago, we didn't know and it was an unknown world,” Iwashimizu said. “This time we are here to achieve a second consecutive title and it makes us feel that the things really start from now.

“The two teams cannot be simply compared, but what's different is the experience of each of the players. We almost have the same players and they know about coming out on top, and I think that's how we could make our way to the semi-finals.”

One area in which Japan will be looking to improve is goalscoring with the reigning champions winning all five matches by a single goal. “We are creating chances and we are finishing our attacks with shots on goal,” Iwashimizu says. “Now we must turn that into a better outcome, and we have been working on that in training.”

Following years of landmark achievement Japan have yet another hurdle to clear when they face England, a side they have never beaten in the three matches between the two nations. Indeed England were the only team to beat Japan at Germany 2011 during the Nadeshiko’s charge to the crown.

And Iwashimizu remains wary of an England side who impressively saw off Norway and Canada during the knockout stage. “Each one of the players can play offensively and carry the ball forward, rather than through individual passes,” she said. “And also their long straight passes are high in quality, so we need to handle that well defensively, and it will be my job is to not let them do what they want to do in front of goal.”