July 1, 2011

Japan 4, Mexico 0

Homare Sawa turned in the first truly great performance of the 2011 World Cup as Japan defeated Mexico 4-0. Sawa scored three goals, two of them on headers no less. But it wasn't just the goals, but Sawa's superb overall play that led Japan to victory.

This is Sawa's fifth World Cup. She played in her first at age 16 in 1995. But in all those years and all those World Cup games, she had never turned in one quite like this.

The first goal came in the 13th minute. Japan won a free kick on the left wing, about 28 yards from the goal. Aya Miyama's serve was absolutely perfect into the box. Sawa was able to get space between herself and Nayeli Rangel and rise to easily head the ball inside the right post from six yards out.

In the 15th minute, the ball was played to Yuki Nagasato at the edge of the penalty area. She worked her way back to the right, touching the ball over to Shinobu Ohno. Ohno cut between Mexican defenders Alina Garciamendez and Luz Saucedo, then drove the ball into the upper part of the net just inside the right post from about 15 yards out. In a matter of just a couple of minutes, Japan had struck like lightning and the match was already slipping away from Mexico.

Mexico's first shot came in the 19th minute as Dinora Garza tested Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori from 25 yards, but the ball one-hopped right to Kaihori and she had no trouble with it.

Sawa nearly got her second in the 28th minute, but her header went just wide. Japan was putting on quite a show with their skill and precision passing.

Mexico's nightmare on set pieces continued in the 39th minute. Aya Miyama's corner this time went to the near post, with Sawa making a perfect run in that direction. Sawa flicked the header past Cecilia Santiago's right hip and into the net and it was 3-0 for Japan.

Mexico came close to getting one back early in the second half. Stephany Mayor's strike from 25 yards was headed toward the left post, but Kaihori was able to dive and knock the ball wide. The ball was probably going to go just wide anyhow, but the Japanese keeper was taking no chances.

Yuki Nagasato almost had a goal in the 56th minute, but Natalie Vinti was able to deflect the ball just enough that it hit the post instead of going into the net and Mexico had dodged a bullet.

Sawa made it a hat trick in the 80th minute, but Yukari Kinga must get a lot of credit for this one as well. Kinga worked a give and go with Mana Iwabuchi on the right side, with Kinga taking the ball to near the end line. She then crossed it back across the middle where Sawa found open space and finished from nine yards inside the left post.

Indeed, Japan had played one of the best matches of the tournament. They controlled the midfield and were able to create chance after chance, often methodically working the ball up the field with sharp, short passes.

It was the second straight disastrous day for Concacaf teams. Canada was blitzed by France by the identical score on Thursday. In Mexico's defense, not many teams would have beaten Japan on this day, but their marking on set pieces was substandard at best. Maribel Dominguez, Mexico's best offensive option, was held in check by the Japanese and rarely threatened.

Japan secured a spot in the quarterfinals with the victory and they will meet England with a chance to win Group B on Tuesday. Mexico put themselves in a very precarious position because of the size of the defeat. They now have to defeat New Zealand, probably by a fairly large margin and hope England loses to Japan. Even defeating New Zealand, a team that played both Japan and England to one goal, will not be an easy task.