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Composed Japan faces confident Sweden in 'that other semifinal'

Lost in the whirlwind of American media attention is Wednesday’s other Women’s World Cup semifinal between Japan and Sweden. Yes there are indeed four teams left and the world’s No. 4 and No. 5 ranked teams, respectively, square off in what could be the tournament’s most skillful display of possession between two teams.

Japan, the fourth-ranked team in the world, defeated Germany 1-0 on Saturday in a monumental victory that put Japan in the semifinals. This is the farthest Japan has ever advanced in a Women’s World Cup after years of disappointment. Japan had qualified for all five previous Women’s World Cups but made to the quarterfinals only in 1995.

For a team with ambitions of winning the Women’s World Cup, there were plenty of legitimate excuses ready had Japan lost in the quarterfinals. The opponent Saturday was mighty favorite Germany, after all.

But Japan marched on, led by its captain and heartbeat, Homare Sawa. She played the killer ball that led to Karina Maruyama’s 108th minute goal. That was one of just two shots on goal for Japan, which was out-shot 23-9 by Germany. Efficient and precise, Japan marched onto the semifinals thanks to a perfect defensive outing that was both calm and mature.

As Germany pressed on in near panic, realizing that it was about to smash the hopes of entire women’s football-obsessed nation (which is still such a new concept that it is weird to even type), Japan just simply played its game.

There is something to be said for teams that can put the game in perspective. Just seven months ago, when tragedy struck Japan in the form of a horrible earthquake and tsunami, soccer was the last thing on the minds of these players. They still begin and end every match by holding a sign showing their gratitude for the worldwide support that they have received.

When a team – and a nation – goes through something like that, something as relatively trivial as adversity in a soccer match just doesn’t stack up to something that should unnerve Japan.

Sawa and company proved that yet again on Saturday, but now face a Sweden side that enters this game with some serious swagger.

However, questions have to be raised over just how battle-tested Sweden is considering how far along this tournament is. The Swedes only real quality win came over the United States in group play, where a penalty kick and a freak deflection on a free kick boosted them to victory in a game that they certainly controlled.

But North Korea and Colombia did little to provide much competition for Sweden. Both games should have been blown wide open but instead Sweden wasted chance after chance to beat both Colombia and North Korea each by just a 1-0 score.

Sweden is on a roll now, though, with the win over the U.S. last week being affirmed by a convincing 3-1 victory over Australia. Lisa Dahlkvist has been great in midfield for Sweden and Caroline Seger, the team’s captain, continues to show why she is one of the best midfielders in the world.

Australia really offered little test for Sweden, which had the easiest quarterfinal draw of the remaining four teams. As it did all tournament, Australia’s back line made mistakes that killed Australia’s chances, with Sunday’s gift to Sweden being a Kim Carroll back pass that may as well have been an assist on Lotta Schelin’s goal (Sweden’s third).

Sweden and Japan both play incredibly possession-oriented soccer controlled by superior, technically sound midfields. Japan’s stellar defense, led by Saki Kumagai at center back, will be a tough test for Schelin and Josefine Öqvist. Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori has also been in top form – not something often said about Japan’s goalkeepers in the past – and she will be extremely tough to beat, particularly if Schelin struggles to put her shots on frame as she did in the opening matches for Sweden.

The difference could come in the back for Sweden, which is its weak point. Lucky for Sweden, Japan lacks a world-class striker who can carry the team on her back. But five different players have scored for Norio Sasaki’s team, showing that Japan really isn’t fazed by that. Then again, Japan doesn’t seem to be shaken by much of anything.


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