Japan and China will spearhead Asian challenge

LONDON • Among the five teams to represent Asia at this year's Women's World Cup in France, Japan and China are likely to have the continent on edge as they seek to advance far in the tournament.

The Japanese team who were world champions in 2011 became a symbol of the nation's recovery from the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier that year, as well as an inspiration for women's football around the globe.

A number of younger players from the 2011 generation have matured to provide the current side with leaders in every area, including defenders Saki Kumagai and Aya Sameshima, midfielders Mizuho Sakaguchi and Rumi Utsugi, plus forward Mana Iwabuchi.

They are joined by a new crop with plenty of international experience, such as Moeka Minami in defence, Yui Hasegawa and Hina Sugita in midfield, and Rikako Kobayashi up front.

Japan have a style of play underpinned by hard work and good technique, demonstrating an ability to punish opponents with patient build-up and coordinated pressing.

But in a modern world where tactical trends are increasingly homogenised, Japan no longer possess the kind of qualities to stand themselves apart.

The 25-year-old forward Kumi Yokoyama is a real threat to defences however, capable of dribbling through tight spaces.

The Guardian predicts that Japan will reach the round of 16 at least.

For China, runners-up in 1999, they were just one step away from their first Asian title since 2007 in the Indonesian Asian Games last year, before being beaten by a last-minute Japan goal in the final.

The young generation of the Iron Rose are attempting to restore the team to their former glory, yet they are still some distance from the peaks they reached in the 1990s.

The defence, led by captain Wu Haiyan, is pretty settled but the line-up of the rest of the team depends on where the key forward, Wang Shuang, plays. She often has a free role and is expected to be firing on all cylinders after a largely successful season in France with Paris Saint-Germain.

Having reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Canada, coach Jia Xiuquan has said he would love to go one step further in France. But given the quality of the team, another appearance in the last eight might be more realistic.

South Korea, who reached the last 16 in 2015, will count on Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun's experience of playing in Europe.

Nicknamed "Ji Messi" by fans who regard her as the female equivalent of the Barcelona great, she is their record scorer with 54 goals in 115 appearances.

Australia will be led by captain and striker Sam Kerr, 25, as they hope to improve on their quarter-final exit four years ago.

Thailand did not make it past the group stage in 2015 and will seek a better finish this time round.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2019, with the headline 'Japan and China will spearhead Asian challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe