The Young Nadeshiko meet Germany in the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup semi-final on 4 September, and the current holders of the Under-20 title and 2011 European Under-19 championship will pose the sternest challenge yet of Japan’s title credentials. Ahead of would should be an enthralling contest, here are five areas which could prove crucial in deciding which side advances to the final:
- Yōko Tanaka. Japan’s defence is almost certain to be a back four containing Haruka Hamada at left-back, Shiori Kinoshita and Mayo Doko in the middle, with Hikari Takagi completing the back line on the right. Two key selections remain, one of which is positional, this being where Yōko Tanaka is deployed. Her most impressive contribution in the competition so far was when she sat alongside Hikaru Naomoto in the defensive midfield pairing, a superb display in the 4-0 Group A victory over Switzerland capped by two wonderful free-kicks. However, captain Nozomi Fujita was rested for that match, and having been restored to the midfield anchor role in the quarter-final victory she will once again be picked for the central midfield role. Given Hanae Shibata’s excellence in the central attacking midfield position, the expectation is that Tanaka will initially start on the left-hand side of the attacking midfield trio, and will form part of a fluid duo with Shibata as the match progresses, while Mina Tanaka on the right is supported by the overlapping runs of Hikari Takagi.
- Asuka Nishikawa – stick or twist? Ayaka Michigami started in the lone forward position in all three group matches, and would represent a more physical and combative presence against a team yet to concede a goal in this tournament. However, questions remain over Michigami’s composure in front of goal, having wasted a number of excellent chances, while Nishikawa has contributed well from the bench on two occasions, and a good performance against South Korea including her excellent assist for the opening goal. Nishikawa’s selection also allows for more rotation in attacking positions. A more dynamic player than Michigami, she is also more adept at dropping back into the hole while Shibata, Yōko Tanaka or Mina Tanaka advance from midfield into a forward position. As no team has managed more than nine attempts against Germany in the tournament so far, with no more than three of those finding the target, the less profligate and more versatile of the two should be favoured to receive the nod given the additional creative powers she offers.
- Minimising errors. All three of Germany’s goals against the United States came as a direct consequence of mistakes committed by the American defence. Two were a result of poorly executed headers, and the third was a handling error by Bryana Heaberline. While the USA restricted Germany to just fourteen shots, their lowest total in the tournament, American generosity was brutally punished. Meanwhile, in the first knockout stage, Norway goalkeeper Nora Gjoen gifted Melanie Leupolz their second goal in that match and put Norway in a position from which they could never recover. It’s evident that the highest scoring team remaining in the competition does not need to be handed any presents.
- Crosses. It’s evident Germany has and will benefit from a significant height advantage, and the onus is on the Young Nadeshiko to try to reduce the potential for the high ball as an attacking outlet. Compounding this particular issue is that one of Japan’s weaknesses, which has been exposed a number of times in this competition, is poor positioning and errors made in dealing with crosses. Sakiko Ikeda fumbled an attempted catch under pressure against Mexico to gift Sofia Huerta a late consolation, while in the surprise 2-2 draw with New Zealand neither Hikari Takagi or Mayo Doko took responsibility for attending to Rosie White, who turned and slotted home having been allowed to control a high ball on her chest. In the quarter-final, Jeoun Eun-Ha was allowed to score a simple header to level despite there being four Japan polayers within five yards of the South Korean midfielder. Germany possess a significant aerial threat in Luisa Wensing, scorer of excellent headed goals against China and Norway, and Nicole Rolser may be called upon from the bench should Germany need an alternate forward in the later stages of the game.
- Pressing and covering the German full-backs. If the case hadn’t already been made for both Yōko Tanaka and Mina Tanaka to be selected ahead of Kumi Yokoyama, their relentless pressing combined with greater defensive abilities will be of greater importance than the exciting, visionary but occasionally erratic number 10. Carolin Simon on the left and Leonie Maier on the right like to play in advanced positions, with Maier very accurate with distribution out of defence, and Simon adept with the ball at her feet and bringing the ball out of deep areas into an opposition’s midfield. Both of Japan’s wide attacking midfielders will need to be diligent in pressing either player in possession and trying to limit their movements further up the pitch to reduce the opportunity for the full-backs to get forward.