June 30, 2011

World Cup: Day 6

Japan vs. Mexico (9 am eastern)

This promises to be a truly interesting matchup, as the young Mexico squad will take on the technically strong Japanese team. A victory for Japan would put them into the quarterfinals. If Mexico should win, things could get very complicated in Group B heading into their final matches next Tuesday.

Mexico has to be riding a wave of confidence following their draw against the world's 10th ranked team, England, in their opener. Meanwhile, Aya Miyama's free kick saved the day for Japan in their win over New Zealand.

One might note that Group B is the only one where all four teams scored in their first match. This game has no shortage of good attacking players.

For Mexico, Maribel Dominguez is a very clever and experienced forward that can get behind opposing defenses that take their eye off her for a split second. Monica Ocampo's stunning strike from over 30 yards gave Mexico a tie in their opener. Dinora Garza is also dangerous out of the Mexican midfield. And Mexico will have Veronica Perez back, who missed the match against England, serving her one game suspension for a red card in the Concacaf final.

Japan is also dangerous in the attack. Their midfield is very skilled with Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama. Their targets will be speedy Shinobu Ohno, young Mana Iwabuchi, and Yuki Nagasato, who scored in the match against New Zealand. Karina Maruyama and Megumi Takase provide excellent depth.

The midfield battle will be one of the highlights of this match, with Sawa, Miyama, and Kozue Ando matching against Nayeli Rangel, Guadalupe Worbis, and Garza. Japan has a big edge in experience and probably an edge in technical ability as well, but the Mexicans are playing spirited football right now.

Defensively, Japanese size, or lack thereof, on their back line can be a liability and New Zealand scored their low goal against Japan on a header by tall striker Amber Hearn. Whether or not Mexico can take advantage of this is yet to be seen. Yukari Kinga and Azusa Iwashimizu are probably Japan's most experienced backs.

Mexico has a couple of veterans, Rubi Sandoval and Luz Saucedo, joined by a couple of American college stars, Alina Garciamendez and Natalie Vinti. They played solid soccer against England in the opener.

In goal, Mexico will likely stay with the hot hand and that is 16 year old Cecilia Santiago. It will be interesting to see if Japan stays with Ayumi Kaihori or if they opt for the 36 year old veteran Nozomi Yamago.

Japan is very dangerous on set pieces, as Miyama left no doubt about on Monday. Defensively, set pieces can also be Japan's vulnerability, although that isn't necessarily one of Mexico's strong points. Japan will probably have the possession edge for the day, but the important thing is by how much. If Mexico can hold their own, they might be able to wear down Japan as it appeared they were doing to England late in that match.

The younger Mexican team will need to avoid mistakes and try to be patient. Japan will want to get into a rhythm early on with precise passing. They will also try to force the Mexican defense into situations where they have to foul, giving Japan exactly what they want, set pieces in the offensive end.

My Prediction: Japan 2, Mexico 1.

England vs. New Zealand (12:15 pm eastern)

The last time these two teams met was back in October at the Peace Cup, a game that ended in a scoreless draw. New Zealand had to be pretty pleased in holding England without a goal.

It will be hard for New Zealand to repeat that feat on Friday. England has a lot of attacking options. Kelly Smith is definitely the first option. The great international scorer draws multiple defenders and while that could make things tough on her, it will open up space for her teammates.

As for who will be England's other forward, that's hard to say. Eni Aluko had a frustrating match against Mexico and Hope Powell might go with Jess Clarke or Ellen White instead.

For New Zealand, one would think Amber Hearn would continue to be their main target. She has over 20 career strikes, including a game tying goal against Japan on Monday. Interestingly, John Herdman went with Sarah Gregorius, who has had very few starts, in Monday's match. One wonders if Hannah Wilkinson might be given a shot against England.

England certainly has a strong midfield led by Fara Williams, the scorer of England's goal against Mexico. She is joined by Jill Scott, who is often Williams target on set pieces along with Kelly Smith. Karen Carney and Rachel Yankey played the outside midfield positions on Monday and both can be dangerous.

New Zealand decided not to start veteran Hayley Moorwood in the midfield, instead bringing her in as a 2nd half substitution. We will see if that might change for this match against England. Ria Percival set up Hearn's goal and showed good speed running down the ball in the corner.

Defensively, New Zealand has a lot of experience in the middle with Abby Erceg and Rebecca Smith. England's central defense has even more experience with Casey Stoney and Faye White.

This game features two excellent outside defenders in Alex Scott for England and Ali Riley for New Zealand. Both have good speed and are particularly adept at overlapping runs. Because England will put more pressure on, Scott will likely have more opportunities. New Zealand's success may depend on Riley's chances of getting forward into the attack.

Karen Bardsley started Monday's match and has been the starter for England over the past few months. I doubt that Hope Powell would change at this point. Jenny Bindon is probably the only starting choice for New Zealand. Both are capable of having great games.

This is an important match for both teams, New Zealand pretty much must get points in this match to stay alive in Group B. The tie against Mexico increases the pressure on England in this match. I see England as having too much experience and too many offensive weapons for New Zealand.

My Prediction: England 3, New Zealand 0