Speaking to FIFA.com in the build-up to Japan’s opening game at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, team coach Hiroshi Yoshida, a major figure in the development of women’s soccer in his homeland, said: “I think Japanese players are the most technically gifted in the world.” Rather than simply winning matches, Yoshida said he wants to see good football from both individual players and the team as a stepping stone to the Japan’s full national side, the Nadeshiko, who were victorious in last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and took the silver at the recent London Olympics.

The hosts have their sights set on winning Japan 2012, with Yoshida looking to the senior side as his tactical model. The Young Nadeshiko also play a high tempo game based on short passing and individual skill and are expected to use a 4-2-3-1 formation with high-schooler Ayaka Michigami as the lone striker. And with Michigami studying in Miyagi Prefecture, host to Japan’s first two matches in the group stage, the 18-year-old is sure to have many local fans cheering her on. Despite losing ace strikers Mai Kyokawa and Mana Iwabuchi to injury and Japan’s Olympic side, Yoshida has faith in Michigami, who led the line with her characteristic strength and power in a friendly against Canada on 13 August.

Midfield support
Behind the striker, the tactical fulcrum of the side is midfielder Yoko Tanaka. An endless runner and fluent passer who also likes to shoot from distance, Tanaka initiates many of the side’s attacks. Midfielder Ayu Nakada is also expected to return after missing the Canada match. Defensive duties in midfield are mainly handled by Hikaru Naomoto, whose dedicated covering and precise distribution make her the beating heart of the side. Although Japan face Switzerland and New Zealand, two physical teams expected to launch long-ball attacks, in the group stage, the covering, fast counters, and passing of this midfield should prove enough for Japan to win through.

In the 13 August friendly against Canada, runners-up in the 2002 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, Japan fell behind and trailed for most of the game before recovering to earn a 2-2 draw. Following the match, most of the focus has been on Japan’s defensive performance. Asked about this, Naomoto said, “Canada caught us out on the counter [that day], but we’ve made some tactical adjustments in training and I feel we’re back to our best.” Canada faced Japan’s first opponents Mexico in the CONCACAF qualifiers, running out 1-0 winners, something fans of the host nation hope is a good omen going into the tournament. Following the match, Canada U-20 head coach Olivieri said, “Japan are clearly the best team in the world.”

With the squad united in their desire to win the title, a good start will be essential. It is a sentiment shared by defender Haruka Hamada, who told FIFA.com in the build-up, “Our first game is really important.” After finishing runner-up in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2010, the Young Nadeshiko are currently the team to beat in Asia. Strong local support at Japan 2012 should also provide a major advantage. If the defensive issues exposed in the Canada friendly can be solved, Japan could well power their way through the group stage and onward toward a maiden title in this category.